While it didn’t get much attention and was overshadowed by the two races for governor in New Jersey and Virginia and the battle for the New York City mayoralty, it could well be that the most significant election yesterday was a Republican primary runoff in Alabama’s 1st Congressional district.
The runoff was one of the first high profile Republican primaries where the establishment candidate Bradley Byrne defeated Tea Party candidate Dean Young, albeit by a narrow four point victory. After a series of tea party wins in Republican primaries that may not have translated into general election victories – but were solid statements of where the GOP stands in terms of its activist wing, from Mike Lee, Rand Paul to Sharron Angle – it has become clear that the electorate is oriented towards, and indeed inclined to support, the Tea Party’s anti-Washington rhetoric and positioning.
As the electorate in this contest was disproportionately hardcore Republican primary voters who tend to be the most pro-Tea Party, and even with national support and endorsement for Byrne being substantial, there was a sense in Alabama that the energy and momentum, and indeed the favorite in the election, was Dean Young. This was true not only because of what was happening nationally, but also because of what has been happening systematically and across the board, which is the loss of support inside the national party for the establishment wing vis-a-vis the Tea Party wing.
But in actual fact, with Byrne’s victory the central role of Washington leadership groups like the Chamber of Commerce, who weighed in with at least $200,000 of support at the direction of President and CEO Tom Donohue, and backing from major corporations like Pfizer Pfizer, Caterpillar Caterpillar, AT&T AT&T and the National Association of Home Builders was put on full display. Byrne’s win shows that the establishment has not lost its clout, but instead is in a position to influence races and primary elections where their impact in the last couple of cycles has not been that substantial.
Why is this so important? Because it is a clear suggestion that going forward there will be a rivalry inside the Republican party for support in primary elections. To be sure, Tea Party candidates almost certainly will not stop their campaign to take over the Republican party and, by extension, Washington as well. But there has been a change – and, indeed, Byrne’s victory is a fundamental change, despite the fact that Young and the Tea Party are certainly going to continue to fight.
Young wouldn’t even call Byrne to concede defeat last night, instead offering that he was going to start a national organization, saying that “this is the first warning shot that goes out across the nation.”
Whether this was election night puffery or not, the message is loud and clear: this is the first of many fights that will be fought. But in this first fight the Republican establishment fought back and successfully fended off a Tea Party challenger.
It follows that the Byrne victory, while largely low profile and under the radar, sends as loud a message to the political establishment and the Republican party as could be sent. It is hugely good news for those who favor compromise on the budget, pro-growth economic policies, inclusive immigration policy and hold out hope for the possibility of forging a bipartisan compromise in Washington to get a handle on the debt and the deficit.
Make no mistake, this could well be a turning point in American politics. At the very least it says to a Republicans that when corporate interests and the Chamber of Commerce unite formally and informally to help a candidate, there’s every reason to believe that they can be as competitive, if not more competitive, than a formally unrivaled Tea Party. And that message is certainly one worth talking about.