Establishment Republicans, looking to push back against Tea Party conservatives they blame for undermining the GOP brand, face an early test of their clout with the grassroots in Tuesday’s primary election for Alabama’s 1st congressional district.
Amid a concerted effort by the Chamber of Commerce to secure a win for former state Sen. Bradley Byrne in the deep-red district, polls show his race against conservative underdog Dean Young remains a toss-up.
Byrne and Young are vying to replace ex-Rep. Jo Bonner, who resigned during the summer to take up a new position with the University of Alabama. The winner of the GOP primary is considered a shoo-in to win the Dec. 17 special election.
The Chamber spent about $200,000 to boost Byrne’s campaign amid widespread concern over the clout wielded by Tea Party lawmakers who led the GOP charge to shut down the federal government in a failed bid to repeal ObamaCare.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and several other GOP lawmakers have voiced their support for Byrne. Bonner has also endorsed the career politician as his replacement.
By contrast, Young is running a shoestring campaign, reportedly employing just one staff member.
But strategists wonder if the intensity of Young’s conservative Christian base, as well as that group’s reliability at the voting booth, might put him over the edge.
“Even though it’s cliché to say, it depends on turnout,” said Brent Buchanan, managing partner of Montgomery-based GOP consulting firm Cygnal.
“Whoever is invested most heavily in the personal relationships in the district is going to win it out.”
Young and Byrne finished at the top of a crowded GOP primary field in September, and whoever wins Tuesday’s runoff is expected to easily defeat Democrat Burton LeFlore.
Though Byrne has outraised Young by huge margins in the lead-up to the runoff and is the clear establishment favorite, polls suggest Young remains competitive.
A new survey conducted by Cygnal gave Young a slight lead of 43.2 percent to 40.2 percent among likely voters, just within the poll’s 3.03 percent margin of error.
About 16 percent of voters in the poll are undecided.
Buchanan said Byrne’s money advantage has helped him win the air and mailbox wars.
But he noted that Young has gained 31 percentage points since a September Cygnal poll, while Byrne has moved just 6 points.
In that survey, Byrne held a strong lead, with 34 percent, while Young received just 12.1 percent.
If Young wins, it would be due to a dedicated group of grassroots conservatives who will vote for him no matter what, Mowery said.
“I think that it’s one of those things that if Dean [Young] wins, it’s because of who turns out,” Mowery said, “and if Byrne wins, it’s because they spent [hundreds of thousands of dollars].”
The battle between the two men in Alabama is seen as a microcosm of the struggle taking place in Washington for the heart and soul of the GOP.
Byrne, who began his political career as a Democrat, ran for the state Senate as a Republican in 2002 and won by an overwhelming margin.
He later ran unsuccessfully for governor, again as a Republican, in 2010.
Young, in contrast, is a wealthy real estate investor who has voiced his opposition to homosexuals “pretending they’re married” and believes that President Obama was born in Kenya.
Young’s conservative rhetoric has forced Byrne to adopt more strongly conservative positions in order to fend off his rival in the lead-up to Tuesday’s election.
A Young win would be a setback to a GOP establishment that is fighting to reduce the influence of Tea Party forces.
The urgency of their effort increased amid a public backlash against the shutdown and the near-U.S. debt default. Several polls showed voters primarily blamed Republicans for the crisis.
Mowery warned it is “dangerous” to read too much into a special election. But he said a Young victory would demonstrate that the Chamber’s involvement in the race served only to strengthen the conservative case that Byrne is a “creature of the establishment who is going to go to Washington and give you the same old same old.”