We're About to Find Out What Republicans Really Think of the Tea Party

Republican District 1 congressional candidate Dean Young campaigning in Foley, Ala. Photograph by Brian Kelly/AP Photo

One potentially meaningful effect of the government shutdown and default scare was to persuade many establishment Republicans that the Tea Party lacks the strategic acumen to return the GOP to power and is inflicting considerable economic damage along the way. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups aligned with the GOP have threatened to withhold support from Tea Partiers and even to  consider fielding candidates of their own in Republican primaries.

On Tuesday, this war between the Tea Party and the business establishment will get its first real test when Republicans face off in an Alabama congressional primary*—and it will probably reveal that the business community’s strength—and therefore its ability to act act as a shaping force on the GOP and curb Tea Party excess—has been roundly exaggerated.

The race for Alabama’s 1st district seat being vacated by Republican Representative Jo Bonner pits an outspoken Tea Party candidate, Dean Young, against a pillar-of-the-establishment and former state senator, Bradley Byrne. This isn’t a race whose big fights are over minor differences because the candidates basically agree. Young supported the shutdown, ardently opposes same-sex marriage, wants to expel Republicans who disagree, and has ties to Alabama’s infamous”Ten Commandments Judge,” Chief Justice Roy Moore. He’s a Tea Partier’s Tea Partier.

Byrne, a business attorney and former university chancellor, thinks the shutdown was harmful and claims the support of a broad coalition of local and national business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, which has pumped more than $185,000 into the race on his behalf. He’s been endorsed by Bonner and has received donations from national Republican figures such as House Majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. “We’ve got the classic battle that the nation’s been looking for: Tea Party against the establishment,” Young said recently. This is every bit the “fight for the soul of the Republican Party” so heavily touted since the federal shutdown.

But it’s a fight that the business community appears poised to lose, at least in this instance, because every indicator shows that the candidate it has lined up behind is badly underperforming. Contrary to the impression left by columns such as this one suggesting Alabama is Tea Party country and therefore hostile to Byrne, the characteristics of the district actually favor the business candidate. While northern Alabama is certainly Tea Party country, the 1st district lies in southern Alabama and encompasses the port city of Mobile and wealthy coastal environs. It’s as business-friendly as districts come—Airbus just chose Mobile to situate a major new plant.

“There are a lot of establishment Republicans in that district, folks from the business community of Mobile or those with beach houses and luxury condos,” says Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College.

Indeed, the last three congressmen to represent the district have all been genteel, business-friendly Republicans—most recently Bonner, a Rotarian who’s served on the board of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce. The fact that Byrne is on pace to outspend Young by about three-to-one is a further reason why the business candidate should be leading this race handily.

For all that, a GOP poll taken last week showed Young leading by three points, 43-40. It’s still possible that Byrne will win. But even a narrow victory in such a business-friendly district would underscore how powerful the Tea Party has become—and by extension, how much the business community’s influence has withered within the GOP. The U.S. Chamber’s endorsement of Byrne was its first big foray in the war with the Tea Party. It does not look likely to produce a show of strength. “Even if Byrne ekes it out,” says Davis, “that’s hardly a great endorsement of the business establishment’s ability to deliver on behalf of the GOP.”

* Tuesday’s vote will decide the GOP nominee. The general election will be held on Dec. 17. Since Republicans have held the seat since 1965, the winner of the Byrne-Young showdown will almost certainly wind up in Congress.

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