The latest sign of a tea party underdog roiling the Republican Party? Look no further than southern Alabama, where Dean Young, a socially conservative acolyte of controversial Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore is gaining momentum over the Republican party's favored pick.
Young surprised political observers last month when he rocketed ahead of several establishment choices to earn a spot in next week's runoff election against Bradley Byrne, an attorney and former state chancellor of the state community college system.
If elected, Young would be one of the most conservative members of Congress, as his wife proudly proclaims in a recent television ad for her husband's campaign. During the campaign, Young has been outspoken against gay marriage and has encouraged the state party to oust committee members who support it. He is campaigning on his faith, accusing Byrne of not believing the Bible is literally true. And Young not only supported the federal government shutdown earlier this year, but argued that it was beneficial because it could force Congress to take up balanced budget legislation.
Indeed, Young is making this Republican runoff competitive because of his red-meat rhetoric. Both campaigns agree that the race is close and neither has released any polling in the runoff. The only public polling available, a one-day Republican robopoll, shows Young with a slight lead. Byrne spokesman Alex Schriver disputed the survey, but said that the campaign's internal polling does show a close race. "It does show that this is going to be close, but we're well-positioned to win," Schriver said in an interview.
This race should not be close. Byrne began the runoff with numerous advantages. He was endorsed by former Rep. Jo Bonner, who vacated the seat earlier this year, along with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and several other Republican members of Congress. Business groups have also lined up behind him, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and have helped him to outraise Young by a four-to-one margin in the lead-up to the runoff.
"In the Republican primary, I just don't know if money trumps crazy anymore," said Alabama-based Republican consultant David Mowery.
Byrne has experienced political disappointment before. He won a 2010 gubernatorial primary, but ultimately lost in a runoff to now-Gov. Robert Bentley. Still, Byrne won both Baldwin and Mobile counties, the largest enclaves of GOP voters in the First District, in both the primary and the runoff.
This is Young's second campaign in the First District, which he lost to Bonner by more than 20 points in a primary last year. Once again, he is running a shoestring campaign, largely self-financing his operation. While Byrne has a professional team of experienced consultants working on his campaign, Young reportedly only has one staffer working for him.
Young's saving grace: the Christian vote. Young has benefited from a television advertising campaign by Sharron Angle, the tea party-aligned Republican who lost to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010. And Moore, Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, was an early backer of his campaign. Moore became an icon for the Christian right in 2003 when he refused a federal judge's order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from the state judicial building. And he's popular in the district, particularly in Baldwin County, where he won reelection with 65 percent of the vote last year.
The district, based in Mobile, has usually sent establishment-aligned Republicans to Congress. But within the district, recent elections have shown that voters there are looking for more confrontational representation. Bill Hightower, a self-funded outsider, won a state Senate district in a March primary against state Rep. Jim Barton. Barton, like Byrne, was well-financed and had support from the region's business community. But Hightower built a ground organization based largely in the state's Baptist community, ultimately coming out on top.
"We had a name ID advantage, we had a money advantage, but we didn't have an excitement advantage, you know? And we lost," said Mowery, who worked on Barton's campaign. Byrne, he said, is in the same position.
To close the enthusiasm gap, particularly among religious voters, Byrne's campaign released a negative television spot earlier this month, accusing Young of defrauding Christian voters. That ad was debunked by PolitiFact and the Mobile Press-Register, and Republican strategists worry that it could backfire on Byrne.
"As someone who makes ads, I would only go nuclear like this if I felt like we were losing and/or in a dead heat and the momentum is against us with low turnout," Republican consultant Bob Kish wrote in an email. "This ad isn't just 'tough' it's 'harsh'! "¦ I think Byrne might have over-reached. That's definitely a possibility. If you are a Dean Young voter, this ad probably doesn't change your mind and it simply motivates you more to turnout."
Byrne's campaign has defended the ad, arguing that a Young-created PAC donated 95 percent of its funds to his own consulting firm, something none of the fact-checking organizations dispute. Byrne's campaign argues that it's unclear whether those funds were used to promote Christian causes -- including Moore's reelection campaign -- or to enrich Young himself.
Young, by contrast, is running a positive television ad while Angle's PAC and other allies attack Byrne on the airwaves and in mailing pieces. Young's spot, narrated by his wife, attempts to back re-cast him as a family-oriented businessman from a poor background, a contrast to his often angry image on the campaign trail.
Both campaigns are putting a heavy emphasis on turnout in the final days of the campaign, working to get out the vote in what is expected to be a low-turnout election when the congressional runoff is the only item on the ballot. With the enthusiasm on his side -- and no expectation that the general election contest will be competitive -- Young could be poised to join the Ted Cruz caucus in the House on Tuesday night.