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Establishment Republicans Declare War on the Tea Party

9 minute read
Alex Altman / Mobile

Inside a pine-walled restaurant near Mobile, Ala., the South Baldwin Republican Women’s club is watching the party tear itself in two. Between bites of fried chicken and sips of sweet tea, a few dozen ladies and a handful of men clap and hiss as two GOP candidates for Congress savage each other. Bradley Byrne, a mild-mannered former state legislator, has accused Dean Young, a local Tea Party darling, of misusing campaign contributions from “good Christian people.” In reply, Young labels Byrne a liar, a coward, a lawyer and, perhaps worst of all, a former Democrat. “You need to learn to tell the truth,” Young says. “You don’t deserve to go to Congress.”

This slice of the South is an unusual setting for Republican combat. Alabama’s First Congressional District is God-and-guns country, with three dry counties and modest churches dotting the back roads. Democrat is practically a slur. “We’re a very Christian conservative culture,” says Becky Vasko, the South Baldwin group’s president, of a county where Mitt Romney won 77% of the vote in 2012.

In the wake of October’s government shutdown, the uneasy peace between the GOP’s hard-right ideologues and business-friendly moderates has given way to open warfare. And the first battle is in lower Alabama, where the party establishment has poured cash into an off-season congressional primary for the seat vacated by Representative Jo Bonner, a center-right Republican who retired in August.

Inside the lobbying shops of Washington and executive suites across the country, the GOP’s bundlers and business tycoons have been surveying maps and sketching plans to counter the cohort that sparked the shutdown. Over the next year, they may plow $150 million or more into congressional races in a bid to defend vulnerable allies and unseat truculent Tea Partyers. It is “the classic battle of the Establishment Republicans vs. the Tea Party Republicans,” says Young.

At the head of the business brigade is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the capital’s most powerful interest groups. “The chamber is going to run the most robust program in our 101-year history,” says Scott Reed, its chief political strategist. On Oct. 29, a week before the runoff, a top chamber official appeared at an aluminum-coil manufacturer in tiny Foley, Ala., to endorse Byrne. “The stakes,” says Reed, “have never been higher.”

The Empire Strikes Back

This war has the bitter taste of a family fight. As the party’s poll numbers plunged to historic lows, a Tea Party organizer blasted out a fundraising e-mail charging that the Republicans who voted to reopen the government “curb-stomped liberty and defecated on the Constitution.” A senior official with Americans for Tax Reform, an organization that typically bridges the great Republican divide, tweeted that Tea Partyers were “freaking retarded.” The primary season “is going to be a brawl,” says Drew Ryun, political director of the Madison Project, a grassroots group backing Tea Party primary challengers in Senate races in Kentucky and Mississippi. “How 2014 goes is going to dictate who is at the top of the ticket in 2016.”

The ugliness has roots in regret. It wasn’t long ago that the GOP’s moneymen greeted the rise of the Tea Party with open hearts and wallets. As the small-government movement gathered steam, they spent millions on Tea Party candidates in both 2010 and 2012 and lavished funds on the backroom efforts that carved the districts from which grassroots activists could run and win. But the romance soured when a cadre of conservatives shuttered the government in a doomed bid to gut Barack Obama’s health care law.

The chamber, which spent some $36 million in 2012, is expecting to invest in about 30 races this time, defending business-friendly Republicans like embattled Idaho Representative Mike Simpson as well as a trio of conservative House Democrats in red states: Jim Matheson of Utah, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and John Barrow of Georgia. In addition, the chamber is expected to bankroll primary challenges against two Republican incumbents: Justin Amash, a Ron Paul disciple who tried in January to unseat John Boehner as Speaker, and Kerry Bentivolio, a former reindeer farmer who is being challenged by a member of the board of trustees of the Michigan chamber.

This early involvement in GOP primaries is something strange and new for business lobbies. Trade associations and corporate political action committees (PACs) have long been leery of sinking their political and financial capital into intramural spats. But the shutdown put an estimated $24 billion dent in the U.S. economy and punctuated Big Business’s frustration. “We’re seeing a desire to play a bigger role earlier in the process,” says former Michigan governor John Engler, who now heads the Business Roundtable.

The race in lower Alabama is the shape of things to come. The more moderate Byrne has outraised the upstart Young by a ratio of about 8 to 1. The PACs of Walmart, AT&T, Comcast and General Electric have all sent checks to Byrne. Beltway trade associations, including the National Association of Realtors and the American Bankers Association, have also ponied up. Both groups had forked over some $2 million to the Republicans who forced the shutdown and voted against the deal to reopen the government, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And they aren’t the only groups that may be poised to alter their spending patterns. “We need to get into primaries to defend probusiness incumbents who are under attack because they are only 90% pure,” explains Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, whose PAC sent Byrne $5,000.

It’s not hard to figure out who House Republicans are rooting for. Nineteen incumbents pumped $66,000 into Byrne’s war chest from Sept. 5 to Oct. 16, according to an analysis by TIME–more than Young’s total haul over the same period. Among those backers were House majority leader Eric Cantor; committee chairmen Darrell Issa, Pete Sessions and Dave Camp; and several members of the Alabama delegation.

But that doesn’t mean all the Establishment muscle will carry the day. A new political era marked by online organizing, an abundance of new conservative media outlets and disaffection with D.C. has shifted the GOP’s center of gravity toward the grassroots. As a result, outfits like the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action for America and the Madison Project have emerged as the new wave of power brokers. For this crowd, standing up to the GOP is as important as saying no to Obama. “For us, it’s about policy,” says Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, which is not endorsing in Alabama. “For them, it’s about party. That’s the difference.”

Over in Mississippi, the Club for Growth is vying to oust GOP Senator Thad Cochran. Multiple groups are targeting Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is regarded by Tea Party types as too quick to compromise with Democrats and too free with federal dollars. Other Senate stalwarts–including Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Wyoming’s Mike Enzi–are tapping Establishment connections to finance campaigns capable of fending off right-wing challengers. The rebels insist it won’t matter. Business lobbies “no longer have the ability to scare the Republicans in Congress,” says Dean Clancy, vice president of public policy at the conservative group FreedomWorks, which may wade into as many as 45 congressional races. “They’re seeing the power structure change, and they don’t like it.”

A Fight for the GOP Soul

On a bright October morning, as Byrne joins a reporter over breakfast at a local greasy spoon, it is easy to see why the GOP’s business wing is keen to see him prevail. A George W. Bush look-alike with deep local ties and a polished demeanor, Byrne, 58, wants to repeal Obamacare and slash federal spending. He cites as his model conservative Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who spearheaded opposition to immigration reform. He’s fond of pragmatic maxims about how to make government work better. And he thinks Young is off the deep end. “My opponent would be the most extreme person in the U.S. Congress,” Byrne says. “He is unique in how far he is willing to go.”

But extremism may be no vice in this race. Everywhere Young goes in southwest Alabama, he makes the same solemn promise to voters. “If Ted Cruz is the most conservative Senator,” Young says of the Texan who helped shut down the federal government, “I will be one of the most conservative Congressmen.” The goateed businessman with the gruff drawl doesn’t have much else to brag about. His ramshackle campaign has no headquarters and one paid staffer. Young, 49, runs the effort out of his garage with the help of his wife, who handles the phones.

Certainly Young speaks the language of antigovernment rebellion more fluently than Byrne. “I will shut it down again,” he tells TIME. Young sounded a states’-rights battle cry by positioning himself as a leading opponent of a proposal to turn the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta into a national park. And he has tapped into the same strain of religious ardor that twice elected Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who earned national renown when he refused to remove a 5,280-lb. granite slab inscribed with the Ten Commandments from a state courthouse.

Young bemoans the decline of the “Western Christian empire,” forecasts “the end of this nation as we know it” and warns voters that the Supreme Court’s rulings in favor of gay marriage are “ripping apart the moral fabric of America.” A Young campaign flyer claims that Byrne favors the theory of evolution and questions the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. (Byrne says he supports teaching creationism in schools and believes “every single word” of the Bible.)

In an off-year special election, as few as 50,000 Alabamans may turn out to vote in the Nov. 5 runoff. The victor is expected to win in a cakewalk over Democrat Burton LeFlore in the general election six weeks later. But before they go to the polls, voters across the district will be getting a piece of direct mail from the U.S. chamber labeling Byrne the “conservative leader we can trust to take on Nancy Pelosi and the liberals in Washington.”

Young can’t do anything about that, but he is clear about the stakes. “This,” he says, “is a fight for the soul of the Republican Party.”

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Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com