How An Ala. Primary Became A Referendum On The Republican Party

Republicans will be looking for lessons in Tuesday's gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. The battle for the future of the party also played out in a smaller contest: a special primary election for Congress in southern Alabama.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block in Washington, D.C.


And I'm Audie Cornish in California this week.

Political junkies are poring over the results of yesterday's governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia. But they may also want to take a look further south at a special congressional primary in Alabama. There, a moderate Republican candidate beat out his Tea Party-supported rival.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the race could be a sign of what's to come in next year's midterm elections.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The contest for a safe Republican district in and around Mobile highlights the divide in today's Republican Party. Bradley Byrne, the establishment candidate, is a former state senator who defends Navy shipbuilding jobs and infrastructure. His Tea Party-backed opponent, Dean Young, is a former aide to Alabama's Ten Commandments-touting Supreme Court justice.

The establishment Byrne won the race with 52 percent of the vote. Alabama's WPMI television spoke with Byrne at his victory celebration.

BRADLEY BYRNE: The voters came out in such huge numbers. And I think that's a testament to the fact that the voters of this district really do care.

HORSLEY: And they're not the only ones. Business groups from throughout the country poured money into Byrne's campaign, angering his Tea Party rival.

DEAN YOUNG: This is the first warning shot that goes out across the nation.

HORSLEY: Young, whose concession speech was also recorded by WPMI, told supporters they'd been steamrolled.

YOUNG: The establishment Republicans did everything they could. They poured all their money into it and they barely, barely beat you guys.

HORSLEY: To some observers, yesterday's result in Alabama underscores the lesson of the day's other races. A victory for a smiling, business-friendly model of Republicanism and a repudiation of the combative, take-no-prisoners Tea Party.

STEVE LATOURETTE: The center-right of the Republican Party, I think, was three-for-three yesterday in New Jersey, Virginia and Alabama.

HORSLEY: Steve LaTourette is a former Ohio Congressman who set up a superPAC to defend what he calls Main Street Republicans. LaTourette's goal is to raise some $8 million and to serve as a counterweight to Tea Party-aligned groups like the Club for Growth.

LATOURETTE: We've noticed this pattern of very conservative groups coming into Republican primaries with lots and lots of money, attempting to nominate the most conservative Republican they can find, to the detriment to the center-right of the party, the great middle of the party, the governing portion of the Republican Party. And to this moment in time there's been no financial counter-balance.

HORSLEY: That began to change in Alabama. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $200,000 to support the winning establishment candidate. At a breakfast last month sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, chamber president Tom Donohue promised more where that came from in next year's midterm elections.

TOM DONOHUE: You can be sure that we'll be very vigorous in the House. The bottom-line is this is all about the economy, for us, all about the American business community, and all about the country.

HORSLEY: The chamber and other business groups have been frustrated by what they see as bad-for-business moves by the Republican-controlled House, such as shutting down the government or flirting with a federal default. By playing a more active role in primary campaigns, LaTourette and his allies hope to strengthen the hand of more moderate Republicans.

LATOURETTE: That's a sign that needed to be seen by center-right candidates and members of Congress who live in fear of a Tea Party primary. The fact that there will be some people that have your back, should you choose to be part of the governing wing of the party, I think is an important message.

HORSLEY: Wading into the intramural battles of the Republican Party could be expensive for business organizations. But some have decided sitting out those contests is even costlier.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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