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Roll Call

For Business, Bigger Primary Challenges Follow Alabama Race

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Amash, above, a tea party lawmaker, faces businessman Ellis in Michigan’s 3rd District in 2014. Will business groups influence the race?

On the surface, Bradley Byrne’s victory over tea party firebrand Dean Young in Alabama’s 1st District GOP runoff boosted business’s battle for control of the Republican Party.

But a deeper dive into Tuesday’s results reveals this was not as clear-cut a win for business groups looking to send friendlier conservatives to Congress following last month’s government shutdown.

Byrne captured the GOP nomination in the runoff to replace former Rep. Jo Bonner by 4 points over Young. It’s a stunningly slim margin given Byrne and other outside groups outspent Young by 10-to-1. Young also had virtually no help from outside groups like the Club for Growth, receiving only a small burst of spending from failed Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s super PAC.

In fact, local operatives blame Young’s “impulsive” personality and controversial remarks for his defeat — not his stance on the issues.

Thus, the numbers and circumstances around the race give both sides fuel going into 2014 Business can claim victory in Round 1, but tea party groups have proof that even with a lackluster candidate, their grass-roots network is strong.

“There is a big, big difference between tea party philosophy and being angry,” former Alabama GOP Chairman Marty Connors said of Young’s loss. “And the answer is that if tea party people select candidates who can hold their tongue and be articulate and not angry but forceful, I think that they will rightfully take control of the Republican Party over time.”

Looking toward 2014, business’s next challenge lies in a handful of races in other areas across the country: In Michigan’s 3rd District, where businessman Brian Ellis is looking to oust tea party Rep. Justin Amash, and in Idaho’s 2nd District, where tea party candidate Bryan Smith is looking to oust business-friendly Rep. Mike Simpson.

While business groups haven’t officially waded into these races yet, they will have to convince conservative primary voters that pragmatism over fiery rhetoric and tactics is needed to change Washington. That’s a tough sell among the grass-roots primary base — as evidenced in Alabama on Tuesday.

Ellis said that although he is “just as angry as the next person with how things are going” in Washington, D.C., he will have a message that effectiveness is paramount to solving problems.

“And I think we saw the ineffectiveness of Justin and other Ted Cruz supporters,” Ellis said. “All it did was give Republicans a black eye. Their tactic of threatening to default on our debt was irresponsible.”

In Idaho’s 2nd District, Smith’s campaign said that the race will be much different than the contest in Alabama. Mark Harris, a top adviser to Smith’s campaign, said that Smith has the support of groups such as the Club for Growth and Citizens United and will be able to paint a clear choice for primary voters.

“I think that when you have a guy like Bryan Smith, who is a successful and articulate supporter of conservative principles, I think that matters more than Mike Simpson’s bad voting record,” Harris said. “I think voters in Idaho are going to have a clear choice in the primary.”

Aides at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce did not return a request for comment on this story. But Main Street Advocacy, a new group, announced this week that it is trying to raise $8 million to boost moderate congressional candidates this cycle.

However, conservative groups like the club say they are not phased by business groups’ primary threats.

And back in Alabama, consultants say tea party groups’ fearlessness is warranted.

“If you get somebody who ... is as fiery as Young but can be controlled in what he does and says, he probably wins,” Alabama GOP consultant David Mowery said. “That’s the postmortem on it.”

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