ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Voters in south Alabama are getting a glimpse of the factions vying for control of the Republican Party. A runoff election next week pits two conservative GOP candidates against each other. The winner will go onto to a special election to replace retired Congressman Jo Bonner, in a reliably red district.
NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Candidate Dean Young introduces himself to voters on Dauphin Island, just south of Mobile.
DEAN YOUNG: Tea Party Patriot, I like your shirt.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I like Dean Young.
ELLIOTT: He's quick to draw the battle line in this congressional race.
YOUNG: That's what it's shaping up to, you know, it's the establishment versus the Tea Party.
ELLIOTT: The establishment being former State Senator Bradley Byrne, the top vote-getter in a crowded September primary.
Young, a small businessman, has run for political office before but never won. He's best known for his alliance with Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, famous for placing a giant Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building; a move found unconstitutional by federal courts more than a decade ago.
On the campaign trail, Young talks about returning Godly principles to government and plays up his status as political outsider.
YOUNG: I am not a career politician that's going to go up there and just be the same ole same ole. And you guys can count on that. If you want John McCain, you need Bradley Byrne. If you want Ted Cruz, you want Dean Young. And it's that simple.
BRADLEY BYRNE: I'm not going to be confrontational just for the sake of being confrontational.
ELLIOTT: Bradley Byrne doesn't mind the comparison.
BYRNE: I'm not going to call people names. And I'm going to try to find ways to work with people, to fix the problems that we've got in the federal government.
ELLIOTT: Byrne, a lawyer, touts his past experience as a state senator, school board member, and chancellor of Alabama's two-year college system. And he fashions himself in the mold of his predecessors. Only three men, all Republicans, have held this seat dating back to 1965; all considered effective conservatives who looked after the district's interests but rarely made national headlines.
Byrne says theatrics don't solve anything.
BYRNE: I have no interest in going up there and trying to feed into whatever the circus mentality has been in Washington. I want to go up there and get something done.
ELLIOTT: In the campaign, Bryne is playing hard, running an attack ad that questions Young's business dealings. Both candidates stake similar conservative ground when it comes to the issues of the day; cutting federal spending and repealing the health care law.
That makes the race more of a contrast of styles, says Mobile political columnist George Talbot.
GEORGE TALBOT: So you have one guy who's a fighter and another guy who's a problem solver.
ELLIOTT: Byrne got nearly 35 percent of the vote in the primary. Dean finished second with 23 percent. The winner of the runoff will face Democrat Burton LeFlore in December.
Talbot says the race should provide GOP strategists with a clear snapshot of where conservative Republican voters are headed in next year's mid-term elections.
TALBOT: Is the Tea Party for real? They have made a lot of noise, they get a lot of attention, but can they really win elections?
ELLIOTT: Byrne is drawing financial support and endorsements from traditional Republican circles: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, and former congressmen who've represented Alabama's First Congressional District.
Young complains he's not getting that kind of outside help.
YOUNG: The full weight of the establishment is crushing down on top of us. And they - the Tea Party is nowhere to be found.
ELLIOTT: But Young is drawing grassroots support, particularly in rural parts of this large southwest Alabama district that includes wide swaths of farm land, the port city of Mobile, and beach resort towns.
On Dauphin Island, 62-year old Terry Barnard just got word that his health insurance premium will double under the Affordable Care Act. And he likes what Young says about, quote, "dying on the Hill to repeal it."
TERRY BERNARD: There comes a time when someone needs to stand up with a $17 trillion dollar debt, you know, this entitlement society we've turned into. There comes a point in time somebody needs to say: Dammit, you know, we're going down the wrong road here.
ELLIOTT: In rural Robertsdale, outside a gun show, Garland Kahl says he's a little confused trying to pick the most conservative candidate. He likes that Bradley Byrne has the endorsement of the NRA. But then again, he says, Dean Young's renegade spirit appeals to him, too.
GARLAND KAHL: You know, what's worse: A politician or somebody that's not? It's kind of hard to decide that.
ELLIOTT: The same question that voters around the country could be pondering next fall.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.