Why a Republican Primary in Alabama Is the Race to Watch Today

One race — between two conservatives in Alabama's conservative First Congressional District — has turned into the must-watch contest. The establishment is being challenged by an insurgent, and the insurgent is winning.

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The elections being settled on Tuesday share a common theme: they're mostly blow-outs. But one race — between two staunch conservatives in Alabama's staunchly conservative First Congressional District — has turned into the must-watch contest for political junkies. The establishment is being challenged by an insurgent, and the insurgent is winning.

The race is a run-off between Republicans Bradley Byrne (left) and Dean Young, the top two vote-getters during the primary in September. Byrne, an attorney and member of the Alabama state Senate, earned the most votes. Young, a businessman who ran for the congressional seat in 2012, came in second. The seat is vacant after Rep. Jo Bonner resigned to take a job at the University of Alabama. The winner of Tuesday's run-off will almost certainly defeat Democrat Burton LeFlore and go to Washington. (The district preferred Romney to Obama by 24 percentage points.)

Bonner has endorsed Byrne — as has most of the traditional Republican establishment. Which is precisely why the contest is so interesting.

The shutdown fight in October was only the most recent and ferocious manifestation of the Civil War within the Republican Party, a struggle pitting establishment Republicans — like Byrne — against insurgents aligned with the Tea Party — like Young. In other words, Alabama's first district has become a proxy in the broader war between the GOP and the conservative rebellion. But not in the way you might think.

The Guardian interviewed both candidates last week, and two differences emerged. First, that Byrne clearly had a better grasp of national politics and of the politically astute way to respond to questions. Second, that Young didn't — and probably didn't care.

Where was Barack Obama born?

Byrne: He was born in Hawaii and he has produced a birth certificate.

Young: That is what we call the $64,000 question! I have no idea! [When pushed for an answer:] Kenya.

In another question, the two candidates were asked their views on homosexual relationships. Byrne said that gay people feel the same love for each other as straight couples. Young's now infamous response was, "Homosexuality is wrong, and that is just the way it is." This echoes Monday's revelation from Mother Jones that, while running for secretary of state in 2002, Young, right, told voters that if gays are unhappy with Alabama, "then maybe they need to go back to California or Vermont or wherever they came from."

To the Associated Press, Byrne described the difference between the candidates as one of style: "Tone is important." That's particularly true since the difference between the two is largely not about politics. While Young carries the imprimatur of the Tea Party, that's mostly because he is trying to take on the establishment, not because his politics differ dramatically from Byrne's in an objective sense. The Daily Beast summarizes Byrne's views.

Christianity has always been a strong part of his platform; he has said, "my faith in Christ is my foundation" and has insisted that every word in the Bible is true. He derides the "corrupt" IRS on his website and is backed by the NRA, the Chamber of Commerce, and Ending Spending, the super PAC largely funded by Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who considered running ads against Obama in 2012 that focused on his connection to Jeremiah Wright.

Byrne opposed the deal that ended the shutdown, has signed Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, and supports teaching evolution in schools. And this is the non Tea Party guy.

Comparing Byrne's to Young's positions, Byrne's comment about tone does seem like a key distinction. That tone is intentional. Young's tone-deafness on gays and Obama's place of birth how he reinforces his conservative credentials. His political role model is Judge Roy Moore, the chief justice of Alabama's Supreme Court who made his name by installing a copy of the Ten Commandments in the court building, and then opposing legal efforts to have it removed. This is Young's stated role model: a political actor who is motivated by his values. The image at left, from Young's Facebook page, summarizes the political difference. Byrne is willing to work with the party to make change in Washington. Young doesn't seem to care.

More than two dozen sitting Republicans have backed Byrne and given to his campaign. The Chamber of Commerce, flummoxed by the insurgency that led to the shutdown, has come in heavily in support of Byrne, whose support for the shutdown was at least moderated to some degree. The battle isn't about the Tea Party against another Republican. The battle is about whether or not the full weight of the Republican establishment can win a race in a Republican district against an insurgent whose strategy largely consists of pushing conservatives' buttons. This won't say much about 2016, but it's possible that it could demonstrate how often Republican House candidates in 2014 will face difficult primary challenges.

A poll out last week shows Young, the button-pusher, up by 3 percentage points. The polling firm got the primary wrong, thinking that Young wouldn't make the run-off, so it's worth taking it with a grain of salt. But if you're RNC head Reince Priebus or the Chamber of Commerce, or a sitting House candidate in a Republican district, even Young losing by 3 points is a very, very bad sign.

If you're interested, you can watch Alabama election results here on Tuesday night.

Photo of Byrne via the AP, of Young, via the candidate's Facebook page.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.