Business interests line up against Tea Party candidate in Alabama

Reuters

By Verna Gates

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Nov 5 (Reuters) - A tight primary electionin an Alabama Republican stronghold has pitted a business-backedformer state senator against a Tea Party movement favorite in arace highlighting tensions between the party's pragmatic andideological wings over the recent government shutdown.

Major businesses including Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Home Depot Inc are backing the campaign of formerlawmaker Bradley Byrne, saying the 58-year-old attorney betterrepresents their interests than Dean Young, a wealthy realestate developer running a grass-roots campaign.

"Bradley Byrne is the John Boehner-style candidate and DeanYoung will tell you he is more like Ted Cruz, said BillArmistead, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.

With Young slightly ahead in late polling, according toMontgomery-based GOP consulting firm Cygnal, the outcome of therace may be an indicator of how much clout the businessorganizations critical of the Tea Party movement will ultimatelywield in conservative states like Alabama.

Byrne backed the Republican party's mainstream during thegovernment shutdown, which opposes funding for the Obamaadministration's healthcare reform law, but disagreed with theshutdown.

"It is a test of the Tea Party's strength," said WilliamStewart, a political scientist at the University of Alabama. "IfMr. Byrne comes out with a convincing win, it would deal a blowto them. If Dean wins, it would prove their strength."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent their national politicaldirector, Rob Engstrom, to Alabama last week to an endorsementevent with Byrne, a former Democrat who joined the Republicansin 1997.

Many of its members, such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, havesent funds to Byrne's campaign, part of a total war chest ofmore than $689,000 according to the Federal Election Commission.

"Washington needs proven leaders who understand theprincipals of free enterprise," the chamber's spokesman BlairLatoff Holmes said.

His donor list reads like a who's who of national and localbusiness leaders, with politicians such as House Majority LeaderEric Cantor, tossing in contributions.

In contrast, Young depends on grass-roots support with onlya modest $85,546 raised, according to the FEC. Young is alignedwith an Alabama judge who famously erected a granite monument ofthe Ten Commandments in 2001 at the state supreme court buildingin Montgomery. It was later removed.

"We feel strongly that Bradley Byrne is the right person tolead. He is the pro-retail person in that race," said DavidFrench, the chief lobbyist for the National Retail Federation.Their Retail Pac donated $2,500 to his campaign.

With the government unpopular in the area that was deeplyaffected by the 2010 BP oil spill, Young's message resonates,Armistead said.

Add in some 90,000 Alabamans who have recently receivedhealth insurance policy cancellations, rates that are doublingand tripling for thousands of others, and the political terrainturns favorable for an anti-establishment candidate, he added.

After only 12 percent of voters turned out for the firstprimary, even fewer could be expected on Tuesday to fill thevacated congressional seat formerly held by U.S. RepresentativeJo Bonner who left his seat in August to take a job at theUniversity of Alabama.

Byrne, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010, won 35percent of the vote in the first round of polling, with Youngtaking second place with 23 percent.

Tuesday's eventual winner is almost assured of becoming thenext congressman. A Democrat has not captured a congressionalseat in that district since 1964.

A small turnout could favor Young.

"You can spend all the money in the world, but it is all fornaught if you can't get the voters out," Armistead said.

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