In Alabama Race, a Test of Business Efforts to Derail Tea Party
Meggan Haller for The New York Times
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and ERIC LIPTON
MOBILE, Ala. — With only days to go before a special Republican primary runoff for Congress here in South Alabama, the national business lobby is going all in.
Meggan Haller for The New York Times
Meggan Haller for The New York Times
In the first test of its post-government-shutdown effort to derail Tea Party candidates, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put on a rally on Tuesday in the warehouse of an aluminum plant to show its support for Bradley Byrne, a lawyer and former Republican officeholder.
Companies as diverse as Caterpillar and AT&T have also sent in a last-minute flurry of donations. The goal, backers of Mr. Byrne said, is to elect not just a Republican, but the right kind of pro-business one.
Dean Young, the Tea Party-backed businessman who is running against Mr. Byrne, seems only to be reveling in his opponent’s establishment, big-money support, repeatedly praising Senator Ted Cruz of Texas for leading the way to the government shutdown and saying that if he wins it will be in the face of “the entire Republican establishment.”
“I’ve got an army of people that care about this nation,” said Mr. Young, a tall, brawny man with a shaved head and a stern delivery, after a debate on Wednesday night. “We’re on our own, but that’s O.K., because when we win, it sends a bigger message.”
Despite Mr. Byrne’s substantial advantage in campaign money and endorsements, Republican consultants and voters here say that the zeal of Mr. Young’s Christian conservative supporters puts the outcome of the runoff at even odds, suggesting that the fight over control of the Republican Party is likely to be long, hard and unpredictable.
It is a reality that has some of the Washington lobbyists and political consultants who are helping orchestrate the anti-Tea Party push concerned, particularly given that extreme conservatives tend to be more reliable voters.
Mr. Young’s voters are drawn by his declaration that homosexuality “always has been, always will be” wrong, his full backing of using a government shutdown “to stop Obamacare,” and his insistence that people “have the right to acknowledge God in schools and in the public square.”
Supporters of moderate Republican candidates worry about whose voters will turn out.
“We can have all the money in the world, but if we can’t get the center-right Republicans to the polls on Primary Day then it does not matter,” said Steve LaTourette, a former Ohio congressman who is now trying to build an $8 million “super PAC” to help support more mainstream Republicans in 2014 primaries.
In the aftermath of the shutdown last month, business leaders from Washington and around the nation have vowed to play a greater role in coming primaries like this one.
They are increasingly concerned that a core group of anti-establishment conservatives in the House is threatening to derail their agenda, not just in terms of keeping the government open for business, but also when it comes to passing a comprehensive new immigration law, revising the nation’s tax code and making changes to the health care law, instead of just trying to kill it.
A second test case already emerging is in Michigan, where business groups are aligning behind Brian Ellis, a Grand Rapids investment manager who is trying to oust Representative Justin Amash, a Republican who was one of the core House lawmakers who supported the shutdown.
Mr. Byrne, who early in his political career was a Democrat before running as a Republican for state senator and then unsuccessfully for governor again as a Republican in 2010, clearly has the party establishment behind him. Two of the three congressmen who have held this House seat since 1965, two of the Republican candidates who lost in the September primary and the National Rifle Association have all endorsed him.
“We have a big choice to make and it’s an important choice, and if we make the wrong choice we can send somebody to Congress who’s a show horse and not a workhorse,” Mr. Byrne said at the debate on Wednesday night, presenting himself as a candidate who can make deals and get things done rather than pick fights on principle.
The Chamber of Commerce has contributed money in House Republican primaries before, but it expects to play a role in a greater number of these intraparty fights in the coming year.
Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s national political director, explained this strategy on Tuesday, when he flew in to endorse Mr. Byrne, standing on a stage next to him at the warehouse in Foley.
“The No. 1 goal of the U.S. Chamber’s political program is to protect the pro-business majority in the House of Representatives,” Mr. Engstrom said to the crowd. “In addition to protecting that majority, we are also very interested in what is the composition of that majority. We want to find candidates who come from the private sector, we want to find candidates who come from the chamber family.”
Contributions from corporate America have been pouring into Mr. Byrne’s campaign in recent days. Just in the first three workdays of this week, for example, $5,000 checks came in from political action committees run by Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant; the National Beer Wholesalers Association; the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America; the BASF Corporation, the chemical company; and the National Association of Home Builders, among others.
And on Tuesday, the Chamber of Commerce, which also contributed $5,000 to the campaign, disclosed that it had spent $185,000 in so-called independent expenditures to help Mr. Byrne’s cause, with the money going to a Washington-area political consulting firm to send out mail to Alabama voters and to take out Internet advertisements.
David French, the chief lobbyist at the National Retail Federation, whose members such as Walmart have contributed to Mr. Byrne’s campaign, said that in House districts like this one in Alabama, the Republican nominee is almost certain to win the seat when the full election takes place in December. That means the business community has one shot to influence the outcome.
“If you don’t play in the primaries, you are not going to take part in those races,” Mr. French said.
Among the Mobile business elite there is anxiety about the runoff, and many believe that an angry electorate has found what it is looking for in Mr. Young’s brand of aggressive — but by all accounts sincere — politics.
Recent elections in Alabama have proved that politicians with a strong Christian conservative following can win big races, even when significantly outraised. Aware of this, some in the Byrne camp have quietly reached out to Democrats, hoping to attract non-Republicans to the polls. But it is unclear whether that will happen, or would be enough.
“We are hungry for bold, B-O-L-D, all caps,” said Linda King, a retiree who is volunteering for Mr. Young’s campaign.
For Ms. King and her fellow volunteer Joy Hansel, the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce — a group that supports immigration law change — only reinforces their belief that they are supporting the right man for the job.
“Every endorsement comes with an expectation,” Ms. Hansel said. “We’re relying on a higher power.”