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November 2, 2013

GOP internal divide plays out in Alabama campaign

MOBILE, Ala. — To get a sense of the Republicans' internal struggle, take a look at a congressional runoff Tuesday in south Alabama.

The race to succeed U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, who resigned the seat and became an executive with the state university system, marks a test of the business community's effort to counter conservative activists who have pushed the party to the right since President Barack Obama's election in 2008.

Bradley Byrne, a lawyer with two decades in government, is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's preferred candidate, an endorsement that has meant $200,000 in campaign support. The group has said that after October's partial federal government shutdown and near national credit default it will be more aggressive in Republican primaries.

Byrne's rival is Dean Young, a self-described tea party conservative best known as a onetime campaign adviser to Roy Moore, the judge who was once ousted as state Supreme Court chief justice after refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Building.

Yet easily overlooked in the establishment vs. tea party storyline is that both candidates have virtually identical positions on the high-profile issues at the core of Capitol Hill dysfunction: the budget fight over tax policy and spending priorities, and the related struggle over Obama's health care law.

That raises questions about whether races like this, in strongly conservative House districts, will do anything to settle the GOP's direction or alter the dynamics of a Republican-controlled House that remains fundamentally at odds with the Democratic-run Senate.

Byrne, who lost a 2010 Republican runoff for governor to eventual winner Robert Bentley, led a field of nine candidates in the September primary with 35 percent, well short of a necessary majority. Young was a distant second.

But polls suggest the race has tightened considerably with a low turnout expected Tuesday.

Barring an upset by a little known Democrat in the December general election, the GOP runoff winner will take office as Congress nears the Jan. 15 expiration of a temporary budget agreement that reopened government. A few weeks after that, the Treasury Department again will need an increase the nation's borrowing limit.

Byrne and Young have tried to capitalize on anti-Washington sentiments heightened by the shutdown, but they go about it in starkly different ways, making the race a personality-driven demonstration of the party's seeming cultural divide.

Byrne, the city lawyer, represents the old "country club-Chamber of Commerce Republicans." Young is the voice of those who distrust all big institutions in Washington.

Both criticize Congress for the deal. Byrne uses the familiar "kicking the can down the road" as a signature line. Young opts for this favorite: "We don't have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem."

In a recent forum, Byrne blamed Obama for the shutdown because he "wouldn't even talk to Republicans" about the health care law, taxes and spending. Young dismisses any worry about blame for the shutdown, saying it was worth it to stop the health care law, which he calls "the absolute worst mistake this country has ever made, excepting the election of Barack Hussein Obama."

Young says "absolutely not, under no circumstance" to increasing the debt limit again. Byrne says he wouldn't unless it was part of a larger deal to overhaul the federal budget. But he's quick to note that he signed a pledge to oppose any tax increase of any kind.

With Obama and Democrats making clear that any long-term deal must pair revenue increases with spending cuts, the immediate prospects of a deal that meets Byrne's conditions are slim to none.

Byrne acknowledges that "on substance, there's not much difference between me and Mr. Young." He notes that while Young embraces the tea party label, the national conservative groups that have endorsed primary opponents of Republicans such as U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., haven't endorsed Young. Byrne says it's because those interests are comfortable with him.

For Byrne, the distinction that matters is style.

Despite his blistering critiques of Obama, he usually says "President Obama" and states as fact that the president was born in Hawaii and proved it with a birth certificate. Young has indulged the false rumors that Obama was born in Kenya and is somehow ineligible to hold office.

"Tone is important," Byrne said, sitting in his downtown law office in the district's population center. "The job of a congressman is more than just what you say about these national issues," he said, pointing down at the shipbuilding yards along the Mobile River. "It's about those jobs right out there. You have to be able to work with people, in Washington and at home."

Byrne doesn't necessarily embrace the "establishment" label, arguing that his tenure on the state school board, in the state Senate and later as a statewide two-year college system chief makes him "a conservative reformer."

For Young and his followers, that history and the way Byrne talks about tone are warnings.

Young supporter Kevin Spriggs, a businessman in Byrne's home county, noted that Byrne was elected to the school board as a Democrat in 1994, well after many "Reagan Democrats" had switched parties.

Byrne switched in 1997.

"I learned there was no place for a conservative in the Alabama Democratic Party," Byrne said.

In 2003, he voted to allow a statewide referendum on a $1 billion-plus overhaul of Alabama tax laws. Voters trounced the measure, but it's haunted Byrne, including in his failed run for governor, when he won many urban centers but lost badly in the rest of the state.

Young gleefully says Byrne's tax vote wasn't from a true conservative, even if it was only to allow a referendum. He also noted that the chamber supported increasing the debt limit and backs an immigration overhaul that he said amounts to "amnesty for 11 million illegals."

"If you want go-along, get-along, then vote for Bradley," Young said. "We've had that in this district for 50 years. How's that worked out?"

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