By Stewart Shoemaker
Off-year election cycles rarely yield much excitement, despite the best efforts of political reporters. Luckily for the candidates in Alabama’s 1st Congressional district election, their race fit neatly into the dominant media narrative of America’s current political milieu: theGOP’s ‘civil war’.
In one corner stood Bradley Byrne, a former state senator and failed gubernatorial candidate, and the favorite of the Republican Establishment’s typical suspects: the Chamber of Commerce and the RNC.
On the other side was Dean Young, pushing the Tea Party line like it was going out of style. “Homosexuals should go back to California” was one memorable gem from his radical campaign.
The race was hailed as a perfect microcosm of the Republican Party’s problems, and the media patiently waited for the results in order to determine the direction of the Tea Party’s power struggle.By the end of Tuesday night, when Byrne edged out a narrow victory over the bible-thumping Young, reporters from high-profile outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post cited Byrne’s victory as a sign of the Establishment’s resurgence within the Grand Ole Party, suggesting a return to normalcy from the suicide politics we’ve recently witnessed(see the Government Shutdown).
On its face, this analysis seems apt: Byrne is certainly no Tea Partier and won the race by a larger margin than expected. Yet this analysis is, at worst, utterly false, and, at best, glosses over important nuances whose implications would significantly alter our perception of the Tea Party’s influence on American governance.
Alabama’s 1st district lies on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and encompasses the metropolis of Mobile, the state’s second largest city, making it one of the less rural and more educated districts in a state where 60% of the Republican electorate believes President Obama is a practicing Muslim and evolution is a farce. Starting in 1968 with the election of Republican Jack Edwards, at a time when the Democratic Party dominated Alabama and Southern politics, the 1st district has bucked the state’s conservative roots and tended to elect more moderate and less polemical candidates. Consider last year’s Republican primary for the very same seat:
Jo Bonner 55.55%
As you can see, Jo Bonner, the incumbent, survived a rowdy Republican primary filled with three different Tea Party candidates, all of whom ran on platforms portraying Bonner as a big-spending, Beltway-loving, RINO (Republican-in-name-only), without so much as a runoff.
This remarkable result occurred in the same election cycle that saw Alabama Republicans pick Rick Santorum as their presidential favorite and elect Judge Roy Moore, already once removed from the Chief Justiceship of the state’s Supreme Court for placing a two-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the state courthouse, to the exact same post.
While incumbents enjoy a notoriously comfortable position in congressional elections, Bonner’s electoral cruising within a wave of ultra-conservatism speaks to the 1st district’s relative centrism, insofar as the district tends to favor mainstream Republican candidates like McCain or Romney over Gingrich or Bachmann.
Taking the district’s electoral history into account, Byrne’s narrow victory over a fervent Tea Party candidate like Dean Young makes a mockery of the media’s declaration of an Establishment victory. Young has never held political office and possesses few political contacts within the state other than Judge Moore, who, despite his electoral successes (his first victory for the chief justiceship handed Karl Rove a very rare defeat) remains enigmatic even amongst the state’s more conservative politicians. Yet Young still managed to come within four percentage points of a well-financed, well-known, and well-connected candidate who was, in the recent past, very nearly Alabama’s governor.
Furthermore, Byrne’s rhetoric during the campaign embodied a sharply conservative tone, despite his past record of more moderate stances, undoubtedly a calculated decision by his campaign handlers to court conservative, evangelical voters.
Considering the tight race and Byrne’s rhetorical move to the far right, the idea that the election in Alabama’s 1st represents the Republican Establishment’s reclamation of its party’s reigns from the uncompromising Tea Party fails to establish a justifiable basis. This narrow victory, rather than signaling a return to Establishment-style GOP politics, instead suggests that the Tea Party has managed to enhance its influence in a once moderate, yet reliably Republican, district.
For the Republican Party to ameliorate its Tea Party problems, districts like Alabama’s 1st need to remain safely within the hands of the party’s Establishment, and results like last Tuesday’s should give the GOP more cause to worry than to celebrate.