The Next Tea Party Upset?

Underdog Dean Young could topple Republican leadership’s favored candidate in an Alabama House race.

Demonstrators with the Tea Party protest the Internal Revenue Service targeting of the Tea Party and similar groups during a rally called 'Audit the IRS' outside the Capitol, June 19, 2013.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Oct. 31, 2013, 7:41 p.m.

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.

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