Tea party and GOP establishment candidates square off in Alabama

The outcome of the primary runoff could serve as a barometer of relations among Republicans on Capitol Hill

Congressional hopefuls Bradley Byrne, left, and Orange Beach businessman and tea partyer Dean Young.
Mike Kitrell/al.com/AP

A battle for the future of the Republican Party that has been brewing for weeks in southern Alabama came to a boil Tuesday with an extremely close congressional primary runoff between a tea party candidate and his mainstream rival.

With the disorder of the federal government shutdown still fresh in the minds of the GOP, the outcome of the close race could serve as a barometer for relations among Republicans on Capitol Hill, with the legislative style of the candidates in Alabama's 1st Congressional District becoming a more important factor than the substance of their policy stances.

The two candidates — Bradley Byrne and Dean Young — are tied in the polls, with at least 15 percent of likely GOP voters still undecided, according to a recent poll.  

Barring an upset by a little-known Democrat in the December general election, the winner of the Republican runoff will likely take office as Congress nears the Jan. 15 expiration of a temporary budget agreement that reopened the federal government. A few weeks after that, the Treasury Department again will need an increase of the nation's borrowing limit.

Although both hold similar positions on spending and budget issues, Young, the tea party candidate, has said he won't support another speakership term for Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who bowed to pressure from Senate Republicans last month to end the shutdown, The Washington Post reported. Young's defiance of Boehner signals a looming insurgency in the Republican ranks.

Young, an Orange Beach businessman, told the Post the GOP should not have a speaker who would "keep giving in with the same old, same old establishment Republicans." 

Byrne, meanwhile, said he's "not even thinking" about whether he would vote to reinstall Boehner.

 Sam Fisher, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Alabama, says if the tea party candidate wins, other Republicans will also decide it's safe not to listen to the Republican leadership.

"One of the things the tea party and organizations that support it have been effective at doing is sort of threatening if you don't toe the line," Fisher told Al Jazeera.

The race to succeed Rep. Jo Bonner, who resigned the seat and became an executive with the state university system, also marks a test of the business community's effort to counter conservative activists who have pushed the party to the right since President Barack Obama's election in 2008.

Byrne, a lawyer with two decades in government, is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's preferred candidate. It's an endorsement that has meant $200,000 in campaign support. The group has said that after October's shutdown and near national credit default, it will be more aggressive in Republican primaries. Bonner has also endorsed Byrne.

Young, a self-described tea party conservative, is best known as a onetime campaign adviser to Roy Moore, the judge who was ousted as state Supreme Court chief justice after refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Building.

Byrne, who lost a 2010 Republican runoff for governor, led a field of nine candidates in the September primary with 35 percent, well short of the necessary majority. Young was a distant second.

Anti-Washington sentiment

Byrne represents the old country club–Chamber of Commerce Republicans, while Young is the voice of those who distrust all big institutions in Washington. Both criticize Congress for the budget deal. Byrne uses the familiar "kicking the can down the road" as a signature line. Young opts for this favorite: "We don't have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem."

In a recent forum, Byrne blamed Obama for the shutdown because he "wouldn't even talk to Republicans" about the health care law, taxes and spending.

Young dismisses any worry about blame for the shutdown, saying it was worth it to stop the health care law, which he calls "the absolute worst mistake this country has ever made, excepting the election of Barack Hussein Obama."

Young says "absolutely not, under no circumstance" to increasing the debt limit again, while Byrne says he wouldn't unless it is part of a larger deal to overhaul the federal budget. But he's quick to note that he signed a pledge to oppose tax increases of any kind.

With Obama and Democrats making clear that any long-term deal must pair revenue increases with spending cuts, the immediate prospects of a deal that meets Byrne's conditions are slim to none.

Byrne acknowledges that "on substance, there's not much difference between me and Mr. Young." He notes that while Young embraces the tea party label, the national conservative groups that have endorsed primary opponents of Republicans like Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., haven't endorsed Young. Byrne says it's because those interests are comfortable with him.

He doesn't necessarily embrace the establishment label, arguing that his tenure on the state school board, in the state Senate and later as a statewide two-year college system chief makes him "a conservative reformer."

For Young and his followers, that history and the way Byrne talks about tone are warnings.

Young supporter Kevin Spriggs, a businessman in Byrne's home county, noted that Byrne was elected to the school board as a Democrat in 1994, well after many Reagan Democrats had switched parties.

Byrne switched in 1997.

"I learned there was no place for a conservative in the Alabama Democratic Party," Byrne said.

In 2003, he voted to allow a statewide referendum on a more than $1 billion overhaul of Alabama tax laws. Voters trounced the measure, and it and his failed run for governor — when he won many urban centers but lost badly in the rest of the state — have haunted Byrne.

Young gleefully says Byrne's tax vote wasn't from a true conservative, even if it was only to allow a referendum. Young also noted that the chamber supported increasing the debt limit and backs an immigration overhaul that he said amounts to "amnesty for 11 million illegals."

"If you want go-along, get-along, then vote for Bradley," Young said. "We've had that in this district for 50 years. How's that worked out?"

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Patty Culhane contributed to this report. 

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