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An under-the-radar special election in Alabama next week will provide the first post-shutdown test case for moderate, business-friendly Republicans seeking to neutralize the GOP’s tea party faction that nearly led the country to credit default earlier this month.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a message to the tea party on Tuesday, when it endorsed an established lawmaker over the tea-party-aligned candidate in the Nov. 5 GOP runoff in Alabama’s 1st District.
So far, the chamber has spent $185,000 to boost former state Sen. Bradley Byrne over Dean Young — effectively laying down a marker in the growing battle for control of the GOP in the midterm cycle.
“It’s the first shot, really the first political shot, in the GOP civil war between the establishment and business community versus the tea party,” Republican consultant Ron Bonjean said.
The chamber has been a major player in congressional elections — it spent about $35 million on federal races last cycle. The group — which boasts that it represents 3 million businesses — endorses around 300 candidates each cycle, according to its national political director, Rob Engstrom.
The chamber mostly supports incumbents, who automatically get the group’s support if they score at least 70 percent on the key votes. But the chamber sometimes plays in open races: For example, it backed businessman John Brunner’s failed primary bid against GOP Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri’s 2012 Senate race.
Engstrom opened the door to more chamber spending in GOP primaries in a Wednesday phone interview with CQ Roll Call.
“For us, what we want is not just to protect the pro-business majority in the House, but a close second to that is what is the composition of that majority and do we have people who come from our family who are constructive and find ways to get things done, especially in this environment?” Engstrom said from Alabama, where he had traveled to back Byrne in person.
The midterm elections provide several options for the group to affect the makeup of the fractured House GOP caucus.
The 2014 cycle features numerous races in strong GOP districts with tea-party-backed candidates going up against more traditional, business-friendly Republicans — such as Minnesota’s 6th District, Georgia’s 10th District and Alabama’s 6th District, plus several Senate races.
In Alabama, the chamber’s endorsement is boosting the otherwise quiet special election to replace former Rep. Jo Bonner. The six-term Republican resigned this summer to take a job with the University of Alabama.
Republicans have long considered Byrne the favorite in a contest that initially had nine GOP candidates vying for the deeply conservative 1st District.