Here we go again.
In an apparent last-minute filing last week, Orange Beach businessman Dean Young qualified to be on next year’s ballot to run against incumbent Rep. Bradley Byrne for the Republican nomination for Alabama’s first congressional district seat.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because two years ago Byrne defeated Young in a runoff for the GOP nomination to fill the seat vacated by Jo Bonner earlier that year. Byrne went on to win the general election.
But for those few months in 2013, southwest Alabama was under a political microscope. That off-year special election pitted the so-called GOP establishment (Byrne’s candidacy) against the Tea Party (Young’s).
This time, the players will be the same but the circumstances are going to be very different.
On March 1, 2016, voters will be pulling a lever not just for the Byrne-Young match-up, but for the GOP’s presidential nomination as well. On that presidential ballot, there will be a few candidates who will be citing their non-establishment and non-politician appeal, which is touted as a badge of honor at a time when many Americans are frustrated with Washington.
If you’re Bradley Byrne, that’s potentially a problem.
Last week, the House of Representatives passed a $325 billion highway bill by a 363-64 vote. That’s a fairly overwhelming margin, especially with the growing partisanship in Washington. Byrne promptly touted the bill’s passage, citing a number of projects throughout his district: four-laning U.S. 84 in Monroe and Clarke counties, finishing the Baldwin Beach Express out to Interstate 65, widening U.S. 45 in north Mobile and Washington counties and the much-needed new Interstate 10 bridge over the Mobile River.
Despite this grab bag of potential goodies for the constituents of Alabama’s first congressional district, for some people, especially your average conservative primary voter, this massive spending bill represents exactly what is wrong with the federal government.
How many times have we heard over the past few elections we as a country need to improve the nation’s “crumbling infrastructure” or some variation of that? Wasn’t the 2009 shovel-ready stimulus supposed to do that?
In addition to the highway spending, tucked into this legislation is the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a government institution that provides taxpayer-backed lending to foreign businesses and governments to buy U.S. products. The Ex-Im Bank, a relic of the New Deal, was perhaps a noble gesture at inception. But now it’s nothing more than crony capitalism, with its three biggest beneficiaries being Boeing, General Electric and Caterpillar — three corporations hardly in need of any help from federal government programs.
Yet, this is the type of thing Byrne is championing.
When primary season heats up in Alabama, it’s not going to be just the Bradley Byrne and Dean Young show like it was in 2013. It’s going to be more 2012 — a flurry of presidential candidates touting their love for cheesy grits as they all vie for a share of the so-called SEC primary.
Let’s assume things continue down the current trajectory in this presidential race. The so-called outsider candidacies of Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz continue to outpace the GOP establishment candidacies of Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Gov. Robert Bentley’s favorite, John Kasich.
And when we get to Alabama, let’s assume there is a high amount of voter enthusiasm for these outsiders that is a reflection of the national polling. When these voters come to the polling precinct to vote for their outsider candidate and look down the ballot, are they going to check the box for Byrne, the incumbent establishment candidate backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? Or are they going to check the box for Young, the so-called political outsider talking the big game about shaking up Washington?
My guess is the latter, and that’s why, in a way, Byrne is now running against Trump.
In the first contest between Byrne and Young, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce dropped $185,000 to support Byrne. Another outside group, Ending Spending, financed by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, spent around $75,000 on his behalf. Other D.C.-based groups poured money into Byrne’s effort.
But this time, with the center of gravity being the presidential primary election, Byrne may not get the backing of all these same groups that helped push him across the finish line in 2013.
Another potential hurdle Byrne could be facing: Without a lot of action going down on the Democratic side of the ticket, assuming Hillary Clinton continues her domination, Byrne could be dealing with the potential variable of Democratic crossover voters wanting to have something meaningful to vote on.
That could go either way for Byrne. In 2014, incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), a GOP establishment candidate, was able to rally Democratic voters to stave off a Tea Party upstart challenge from Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Or it could go the other way, as Byrne learned in his 2010 gubernatorial bid. Despite having finished first in the Republican primary, Byrne lost a runoff election for his party’s nomination to Bentley, which in part was blamed on crossover Democrats motivated by the Alabama Education Association teachers’ union.
Normally the race for this House seat is a snooze, in that the incumbent generally faces no legitimate opposition. For years the region was treated to token gestures of a re-election effort from Jo Bonner, Sonny Callahan and Jack Edwards. But with the venom a presidential campaign will inject into our politics, this election is one Byrne probably should not take lightly.