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Alabama Shake

So far this year, the script for Republican primaries has been easy to follow. There’s usually been a fight between the Tea Party movement and the Republican establishment; between “true conservatives” and those dismissed as RINOs; between fierce opponents of any cooperation with “socialist” Democrats and the occasional, hunted-to-extinction statesman interested in bipartisanship. You often don't need to have a program to know the players.

But in today's Alabama runoff, you can forgive true conservatives for being a bit confused. That's because this primary pits an establishment RINO suspect—former Democratic state senator, upper-crust Episcopalian, and career trial lawyer Bradley Byrne—against an Evangelical conservative candidate who is allied with the teachers' unions.

Allow me to explain. Byrne, who won 28 percent of the vote in Alabama's June 1 primary, is closely associated with causes that the local Tea Party hates: He came down on the liberal side of the great litmus-test struggle of recent Alabama political history, Governor Bob Riley's 2003 tax-reform initiative, which would have significantly changed one of the country’s most regressive tax systems, but is remembered by conservatives as an audacious effort to raise taxes. (It was subsequently rejected by Alabama voters in a referendum that is considered a signature victory for the hard right.) Byrne enjoys strong backing from the Alabama business community and mainstream Republican elected officials, including Governor Riley. And in the heart of the Bible Belt, he is a member of that great blue-blooded liberal establishment denomination, the Episcopal Church—an affiliation which may have influenced his near-fatal admission early in the campaign that he did not believe every single word in the Bible was literally true.

Byrne’s opponent in the runoff, Tuscaloosa state representative Dr. Robert Bentley, is a classic conservative Baptist, closely identified with 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. He ran an "outsider" campaign in which he promised not to take a salary as governor, and emerged from the back of a large pack of candidates on June 1 to win a runoff spot. Bentley has been endorsed by the campaign managers for both Tim James—the closest thing to a confirmed member of the Tea Party in the primary—and for Christian Right icon Judge Roy Moore, whose underfinanced candidacy finished a disappointing fourth.

In other words, Bentley should be considered the "conservative insurgent" against the establishmentarian Byrne. Except that Byrne hates teachers unions a lot, and his extremely personal battle with them has taken center stage in the campaign, earning him a lot of sympathy from conservatives. As a state senator, Byrne was a constant enemy of the Alabama Education Association (AEA)—once staging a one-man filibuster against a bipartisan compromise bill that would submit teacher dismissal actions to arbitration—and his antagonism only intensified during his stint as Governor Riley’s appointed overseer of the state’s two-year college network. (It makes sense that one of Byrne’s early gubernatorial endorsements came from Jeb Bush, who shares his strong hostility to teachers' unions.) During the primary campaign, Byrne's opposition blossomed into a monomaniacal vendetta against the AEA. Alabama political reporter Kim Chandler captured the tone nicely:

Last fall, Bradley Byrne held a press conference on the steps of the Alabama Capi­tol. Instead of standing with the white columned capitol behind him for the backdrop favored by most politicians, Byrne faced the capitol so the cameras aimed at him panned down Montgomery's Dexter Ave­nue.
Visible over Byrne's right shoulder was the head­quarters of the Alabama Education Association. There, Byrne said, lie many of the problems in schools and in state politics.
"I don't think AEA stands for the best of their profes­sion. AEA stands for the worst of it," Byrne said at the news conference.
Public clashes with the powerful teachers lobby have been the trademark of much of Byrne's 16-year political career and have become a centerpiece of his campaign to be Ala­bama's next governor.

This vendetta, in turn, has scrambled Alabama's political alignments, attracting conservatives who hate teachers' unions to Byrne, while pushing the state's Democratic allies into bed with a candidate who, in most other states, would be considered a champion of the hard right.

There are a few unique aspects of Alabama's political culture that have enabled this dynamic. For one thing, the leadership of AEA, to which the vast majority of Alabama teachers belong, has an unusually intimate relationship with the state Democratic Party. Its top two executives, Paul Hubbert (a 1990 candidate for governor himself) and Joe Reed, are both state Democratic vice chairmen. And the AEA has been completely unscrupulous—and ideologically promiscuous—in exploiting another distinctive trait of Alabama politics: notoriously weak campaign-finance rules that make difficult-to-trace PAC-to-PAC money transfers easy to execute.

The AEA—run by Democrats, remember—now cheerfully admits that it provided massive financial support for a shadowy group called True Republican PAC, which surfaced during the primary season to run attack ads against Byrne, including a notable one questioning his fidelity to Christian fundamentalist views of the Bible and evolution. (Byrne subsequently spent a lot of time staking out a very un-Episcopalian fundie stance.) Election-watchers are also suspicious that the AEA is behind another previously unknown group which has been running anti-Byrne ads, called the Conservative Coalition for Alabama.

This has transformed the back-and-forth of the campaign into something fairly bizarre. Byrne has spent a great deal of time during the primary trying to tie the True Republican PAC ads, and thus cooperation with AEA, to Tim James, who was generally thought to be his most likely runoff opponent. And he’s continued this tack against Bentley during the runoff, aided by the fact that Bentley has in the past accepted small AEA campaign contributions—and is now refusing to demonize the AEA as much as Byrne would like.

Complicating the picture even more is the Alabama Republican Party’s unusual rule allowing Democratic primary voters to cross over and cast votes in GOP runoffs (there is no party registration in the state, so those who did not vote in the primary can also vote in either party’s runoffs). Since the Democratic gubernatorial nomination was decided on June 1 with Ron Sparks’s big upset victory over Artur Davis, there’s definitely a pool of engaged Democratic voters theoretically available for tactical voting in the GOP runoff, and unsurprisingly, Byrne is warning that AEA is determined to turn them out for Bentley: "Democrats are trying to hijack the runoff and their purpose is to defeat me.” Bentley, for his part, has welcomed Democratic participation in the runoff, cleverly pointing out that Republicans once welcomed into their ranks a Democrat named Bradley Byrne. 

Byrne is also trying to paint Bentley as a Democratic stooge by insinuating that this longtime Baptist deacon backs the interests of gambling companies—something that, if true, would put Bently on the wrong side of the Alabama Christian Right's favorite moral issue.

But is this "realignment" real, or is it all just kabuki? It's hard to say, and hard to say how it will play with the voters. First-place primary finishers in Alabama usually win runoffs. Byrne has enjoyed a large financial advantage over Bentley. And in the primary, he performed best in the strongest Republican areas of the state, which is a big plus if turnout is low in the runoff and Democrats don’t cross over.

Yet Bentley’s surprise showing in the primary; his positive, upbeat campaign; the not-so-hidden, if unofficial support of defeated primary rivals; and such personal details as a patient list that includes the late Bear Bryant seem to be pulling strongly in his favor. And the one public poll in the runoff, performed by a Texas pollster on behalf of an Alabama firm, Public Strategy Associates, showed Bentley leading Byrne by a sizable 53-33 margin as of July 5. Responding in the typically conspiratorial tone of Alabama GOP politics, Byrne, citing an internal poll showing him up by four points, has dismissed the independent numbers by saying that, "All I know is people that work for that public relations agency were sitting at a table at a Republican dinner a couple of weeks ago with Bentley stickers on."

The bottom line is that Byrne’s efforts to demonize Bentley and the AEA could either work or backfire horribly. Indeed, the 1998 gubernatorial runoff saw the Republican frontrunner defeated in a nearly identical situation: The second-place finisher, who had warm relations with the AEA, won thanks to a surprise crossover vote that boosted turnout above that of the primary. His name was Fob James, father of Byrne's bitter rival Tim. 

Either way the race breaks, it will be difficult to categorize in terms of the Tea Party versus the Republican establishment. And it remains to be seen whether the bitterness of the GOP contest could create an opening in November for Democrat Ron Sparks.

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.