Tea party candidate loses to establishment foe in Alabama

Dean Young fails to defeat Bradley Byrne by a narrow margin in special runoff

Bradley Byrne celebrates with his supporters after learning he won the Republican runoff for Alabama's First Congressional District at his election night headquarters in downtown Mobile on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. Byrne defeated challenger Dean Young.
Sharon Steinmann/AL.com/AP

The mainstream Republican candidate for Alabama’s 1st Congressional district has edged a narrow victory over his tea party rival in a special Republican runoff election.

The battle between two candidates, Bradley Byrne and Dean Young, framed the larger national fight for the future of the Republican party, reeling from a tea party-backed federal government shutdown in September that establishment GOP members vocally opposed.

The Republican establishment had put its money and clout behind Byrne, and came out a winner Tuesday in Alabama's 1st Congressional District.

With 100 percent of the precincts reporting Tuesday night, Byrne won the Republican runoff with 52.5 percent of the vote, while tea party supporter Young drew 47.5 percent.

Young said he had a strong grassroots campaign, but he could not overcome the money the GOP establishment put behind Byrne.

"It gives the Republican establishment a notch on their belt because they did what they said they would do," Young said.

Byrne said the voters were more interested in performance than labels.

"The voters were looking for the person who would be the most conservative advocate in Washington," he said.

Byrne advances to the general election Dec. 17 against Mobile real estate agent Burton Leflore, who has raised 1 percent as much money as Byrne has in a district that has elected Republicans to Congress since 1964.

Byrne said it does not matter that the odds stand in his favor.

"We are going to take him seriously," he said.

The Republican runoff presented a classic clash between two sides of the Republican Party.

Byrne, a 58-year-old Fairhope attorney, led a field of nine in the September primary. He raised more than twice as much campaign money as Young and ran with the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with more than two dozen members of Congress, and two men who previously held the 1st District office, Jo Bonner and Jack Edwards.

The congressional office seat came open in August when Bonner resigned to work for the University of Alabama System.

Byrne, a former state senator and state school board member, campaigned on his work as chancellor of Alabama's two-year college system, where he restored credibility after a corruption scandal that sent a previous chancellor to prison.

Young, a 49-year-old Orange Beach businessman, ran an outsider campaign, aligning himself with the tea party and drawing praise from Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, a conservative Christian judge who was at the center of a controversy in 2000 over the display of the Ten Commandments inside the Alabama Supreme Court building.

Young played key roles in Moore's two elections, both against better-funded candidates backed by the business community and Republican establishment.

Byrne and Young differed little on the issues, but were miles apart in style.

Bradley Byrne, left, and tea party candidate Dean Young.
Mike Kitrell/al.com/AP

Byrne is known for having the reserved style of the junior college chancellor he used to be, and describes himself as a "conservative reformer."

Young labeled himself a "constitutional conservative" and presented a blistering style, particularly when criticizing President Barack Obama, telling the Guardian he believes the president is likely from Kenya. 

The president was born in Hawaii, public records show. 

Young has also voiced staunchly anti-gay views, Mother Jones reported.

During the campaign, Byrne called Young an extremist who "would be an embarrassment to the Republican Party." Young said Byrne is a "go-along, get-along" former Democrat who would give the southwest Alabama district the same representation it has had for 50 years.

On Tuesday night, Young said he did not get the financial help he had hoped for from national tea party groups.

"They pretty much abandoned this race," he said.

Byrne took this as a compliment.

"They looked at us and saw we were equally conservative," he said. 

Young ran strong in rural parts of the district, but Byrne carried heavily populated Baldwin and Mobile counties. The voter turnout of 16.7 percent was higher than the primary.  

Sam Fisher, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Alabama, told Al Jazeera that the outcome of the election shows that the tea party, while still able to field contenders against moderate Republicans, represents a minority share of Republican voters. 

"You’ll continue to see tea party candidates challenge Republican incumbents and mainstream Republicans. I think what it shows is, whle they’re out there and a force to be reckoned with, they’re not a majority in the Republican party," Fisher said.

Young had said he admired the tactics of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, using a government shutdown as a bargaining tool over budget and debt issues. And Young was prepared to go to Washington, "draw a line in the sand" and do the same if necessary, Fisher said. 

Tuesday's vote in Alabama shows Republicans in the reliably conservative district are wary of those tactics, he said. 

The man Alabama Republican voters chose is seen as likely be a more reserved member of Congress, following the model of his predecessors and not inclined to grab the spotlight as tea party Republicans did during the shutdown. 

"He’s not somebody that’s going to try to get on the national news like some of the Republicans that are strong tea party representatives did during this last fight over budget," Fisher said. 

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Wilson Dizard contributed to this report. 

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