ROBERTSDALE, Ala. — The long-running battle for the heart and soul of the national Republican Party will play out here on Tuesday in the form of a nasty little House special-election primary, pitting business-oriented establishment Republicans against angry and energized tea party insurgents who have become a dominant voice in the GOP.
Dean Young is the insurgents’ candidate. Bradley Byrne is the establishment choice. On Saturday, each made his case to a group of Republicans gathered at Mama Lou’s Restaurant here.
When it was his turn, Young waved off the microphone and announced in his baritone drawl that “the nation is watching.” A Christian conservative aligned with the tea party, Young urged voters to send him to Washington so he can help return the country “to the Constitution and the godly principles that made this nation great.”
But the national attention he alluded to has to do with a full-scale effort by the business wing of the GOP to stop him from winning the party’s nomination Tuesday. They prefer Byrne, a mild-mannered lawyer who minutes earlier focused his remarks on health care and the budget. Polls show that the special-election runoff could go either way.
The race has become the latest front in the fight for a divided and troubled Republican Party.
Stung by the recent government shutdown and debt-ceiling turmoil, business groups are intensifying their efforts to elect like-minded candidates such as Byrne who are disinclined to push the economy to the brink of disaster again. Standing in their way is a grass-roots movement, embodied by Young, that is irate with the federal government and spoiling for another fight, no matter the political costs.
“I think the business community is looking at races and at primaries more closely than we have been in the past,” said David French, the chief lobbyist at the National Retail Federation.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed Byrne, a business lawyer and former state senator who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010. The group has spent at least $199,000 on mailers, phone calls and digital media to help him, campaign finance records show.
Byrne last month received a flurry of big donations from the political action committees of AT&T, Home Depot, Exxon Mobil and Wal-Mart, to name a few. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s leadership PAC also gave him money.
A Byrne victory would lend momentum to an effort by the Republican establishment to wrest control of the GOP from the tea party faction, which has dominated the debate over the past three years. The battle is already on for other seats in 2014, including two in Michigan held by Reps. Justin Amash and Kerry Bentivolio, tea party favorites who have drawn primary challengers.
Retiree Ben Butzbaugh, 69, who plans to vote for Byrne, said he doesn’t want someone who will go to Washington just to be a rabble-rouser: “I hope we don’t send people up there to make a lot of noise and shut down the government.”
An understated man with neatly parted, thinning white hair, Byrne bills himself as a problem-solver who wants to make government work better. At an event last week in the town of Dauphin Island, Byrne called Young a “show horse” who is interested only in agitation.
“If you’re looking for somebody who’s just going to go up there and fight, he’s your guy,” Byrne said. “If you’re searching for somebody who’s going to up there and fight and be effective, I’m your guy.”
The son of a truck salesman and a bookkeeper, Byrne, 58, is a former Democrat who made his first foray into public office in the 1990s when he was elected to the State Board of Education. He later served in the state Senate as a Republican and was appointed head of Alabama’s two-year college system in 2007 before running for governor in 2010. He says a seat in Congress would be his last elected position.
An advocate of repealing the federal health-care law, Byrne said he did not support the bipartisan Senate compromise to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling because it was “kicking the can down the road.” And he’s noncommittal about backing Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) for another term as House speaker. But he worries about the consequences of shuttering the government, setting him apart from his opponent.
“Anybody who tells you it’s a good thing to shut down the federal government, they really don’t understand our whole national system,” he said.
Young disagrees. “The shutdown was not the end of the world,” he said in an interview. “As a matter of fact, I said it should still be shut down until we get some real answers and get some real changes in Washington.”
A real estate developer who names Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) as his favorite Washington Republicans, Young, 49, says that the federal government needs a “complete overhaul” and that “it’s almost immoral” to “keep adding to the deficit.”
He is a social conservative who has disparaged Byrne as a product of the GOP establishment and has flatly ruled out supporting Boehner for another term as speaker.
He’s also a controversial figure who has earned a reputation as a wild card. His outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage has drawn scrutiny (“I’m against homosexuals pretending like they’re married,” he said in a local TV interview). And his biggest local supporter is state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, known best for his refusal to take down a monument to the Ten Commandments he installed in the court’s building.
Young’s volatility may explain why most national tea party groups have steered clear of the race. The anti-tax Club for Growth hasn’t spent any money, nor has FreedomWorks or the Tea Party Express. Alabama Republican strategist Brent Buchanan said the groups probably “don’t want to be associated” with some of Young’s statements.
Despite a dearth of money and national help, Young boasts a key coalition of evangelical Christian supporters, which concerned Byrne’s campaign enough that it ran an ad accusing Young of using Christian donors’ contributions to his PAC for personal gain. Young has also tapped into a base of voters who think Republicans have compromised too often.
“The people I’m talking to here — and this isn’t just tea party people — they’re disgusted with Republicans caving in,” said Pete Riehm, a tea party activist who is backing Young.
Alabama’s 1st District, based in Mobile and bounded by the Gulf of Mexico to the south and Mississippi to the west, is safe Republican territory where Mitt Romney won more than six in 10 votes. The winner of Tuesday’s GOP runoff will be a virtual lock to win the Dec. 17 general election.
But it’s not a tea party stronghold, strategists say. Jo Bonner, a traditional conservative Republican, represented the district from 2003 until he resigned this year to take a job in the University of Alabama system. Bonner backs Byrne and called him a candidate “in the mold” of all the district’s previous representatives.
David Mowery, an Alabama political strategist who has worked with clients of both parties, said, “I think the typical voter in this district is a moderate conservative who values common sense over extremism.”
Byrne’s team has been looking to boost turnout in the closing days. The candidate spent Friday evening stumping at a high school football game, encouraging people to show up at the polls.
About 52,000 people cast ballots in the September primary election, in which no candidate won a majority. Turnout could be even lighter Tuesday.
Undecided voters such as Daniel Scarcliff, who owns a bakery, could hold the key to victory — not only in the 1st District but in the broader struggle for control of the Republican Party.
After listening to Byrne on Dauphin Island, Scarcliff offered the candidate some advice.
“It’s okay to get angry sometimes,” he said.