By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Nov 5 (Reuters) - A tight primary election in an Alabama Republican stronghold has pitted a business-backed former state senator against a Tea Party movement favorite in a race highlighting tensions between the party's pragmatic and ideological wings over the recent government shutdown.
Major businesses including Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Home Depot Inc are backing the campaign of former lawmaker Bradley Byrne, saying the 58-year-old attorney better represents their interests than Dean Young, a wealthy real estate developer running a grass-roots campaign.
"Bradley Byrne is the John Boehner-style candidate and Dean Young will tell you he is more like Ted Cruz, said Bill Armistead, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.
With Young slightly ahead in late polling, according to Montgomery-based GOP consulting firm Cygnal, the outcome of the race may be an indicator of how much clout the business organizations critical of the Tea Party movement will ultimately wield in conservative states like Alabama.
Byrne backed the Republican party's mainstream during the government shutdown, which opposes funding for the Obama administration's healthcare reform law, but disagreed with the shutdown.
"It is a test of the Tea Party's strength," said William Stewart, a political scientist at the University of Alabama. "If Mr. Byrne comes out with a convincing win, it would deal a blow to them. If Dean wins, it would prove their strength."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent their national political director, Rob Engstrom, to Alabama last week to an endorsement event with Byrne, a former Democrat who joined the Republicans in 1997.
Many of its members, such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, have sent funds to Byrne's campaign, part of a total war chest of more than $689,000 according to the Federal Election Commission.
"Washington needs proven leaders who understand the principals of free enterprise," the chamber's spokesman Blair Latoff Holmes said.
His donor list reads like a who's who of national and local business leaders, with politicians such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, tossing in contributions.
In contrast, Young depends on grass-roots support with only a modest $85,546 raised, according to the FEC. Young is aligned with an Alabama judge who famously erected a granite monument of the Ten Commandments in 2001 at the state supreme court building in Montgomery. It was later removed.
"We feel strongly that Bradley Byrne is the right person to lead. He is the pro-retail person in that race," said David French, 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 deeply affected by the 2010 BP oil spill, Young's message resonates, Armistead said.
Add in some 90,000 Alabamans who have recently received health insurance policy cancellations, rates that are doubling and tripling for thousands of others, and the political terrain turns favorable for an anti-establishment candidate, he added.
After only 12 percent of voters turned out for the first primary, even fewer could be expected on Tuesday to fill the vacated congressional seat formerly held by U.S. Representative Jo Bonner who left his seat in August to take a job at the University of Alabama.
Byrne, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010, won 35 percent of the vote in the first round of polling, with Young taking second place with 23 percent.
Tuesday's eventual winner is almost assured of becoming the next congressman. A Democrat has not captured a congressional seat in that district since 1964.
A small turnout could favor Young.
"You can spend all the money in the world, but it is all for naught if you can't get the voters out," Armistead said.