Voters in Alabama’s 1st congressional district are getting a glimpse of the factions vying for control of the Republican Party as two GOP candidates face off in a special election Tuesday.
Former state Sen. Bradley Byrne, the top vote-getter in a crowded September primary, and grassroots conservative Dean Young are battling to replace retired GOP Rep. Jo Bonner in reliably red southern Alabama.
While introducing himself to voters in Dauphin Island, just south of Mobile, Young is quick to draw the battle line in race.
“That’s what it’s shaping up to — it’s the establishment versus the Tea Party,” Young says.
Young, a small businessman, has run for political office before but never won. He’s best known for his alliance with Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who is famous for placing a giant Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building — a move found unconstitutional by federal courts more than a decade ago.
On the campaign trail, Young talks about returning godly principles to government and plays up his status as political outsider.
“I am not a career politician that’s going to go up there and just be the same ole, same ole. And you guys can count on that,” Young says. “If you want John McCain you want Bradley Byrne. If you want Ted Cruz, you want Dean Young. And it’s that simple.”
But Byrne doesn’t seem to mind the comparison, saying that he is “not going to be confrontational just for the sake of being confrontational.”
“I’m not going to call people names, he says. “And I’m going to try to find ways to work with people to fix the problems we’ve got in the federal government.”
Byrne, a lawyer, touts his past experience as a state senator, school board member and chancellor of Alabama’s two-year college system, and fashions himself in the mold of his predecessors.
Only three men — all Republicans — have held this seat dating back to 1965, and were considered effective conservatives who looked after the district’s interests, but rarely made national headlines.
Byrne says theatrics don’t solve anything.
“I have no interest in going up there and trying to feed into whatever the circus mentality’s been in Washington,” Byrne said. “I want to go up there and get something done.”
In the campaign, Byrne is playing hard by running an attack ad that questions Young’s business dealings.
Both candidates stake out similar conservative ground when it comes to the issues of the day — cutting federal spending and repealing President Obama’s health care law.
That makes the race more of a contrast of styles between “one guy who’s a fighter and another guy who’s a problem solver,” according to Mobile political columnist George Talbot.
Byrne got nearly 35 percent of the vote in the primary, while Dean finished second with 23 percent. Since no candidate earned more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election was called. The winner of Tuesday’s runoff will face Democrat Burton LeFlore in December.
Talbot says the race should provide GOP strategists with a clear snapshot of where conservative voters are headed in next year’s midterm elections.
“Is the Tea Party for real? They have made a lot of noise, they get a lot of attention. But can they really win elections?” Talbot asks.
Byrne is drawing financial support and endorsements from traditional Republican circles: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, and the former congressmen who have represented the 1st congressional district.
Young complains he’s not getting that kind of outside help.
“The full weight of the establishment is crushing down on top of us,” Young says. “And the Tea Party is nowhere to be found.”
But Young is drawing grassroots support, particularly in rural parts of this large southwest Alabama district that includes wide swaths of farm land, the port city of Mobile and beach resort towns.
On Dauphin Island, 62-year-old Terry Barnard just got word that his health insurance premium will double under the Affordable Care Act, and he likes what Young says about “dying on the hill” to repeal it.
“There comes a time when someone needs to stand up with a $17 trillion debt, this entitlement society we’ve turned into,” Barnard says. “There comes a point in time someone needs to say ‘dammit, we’re going down the wrong road here.’”
In rural Robertsdale, outside a gun show, Garland Kahl says he’s a little confused trying to pick the most conservative candidate. He likes that Bradley Byrne has the endorsement of the NRA, but then again, he says, Dean Young’s renegade spirit appeals to him, too.
“What’s worse? A politician or somebody that’s not? It’s kind of hard to decide that,” Kahl says.
That’s the same question voters around the country could be pondering next fall.