GOP Establishment Favorite Ekes out Win in Alabama

The race was an early test of whether the GOP business wing can tackle the Tea Party

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Charles Ommanney / Reportage by Getty Images for TIME

Republican Bradley Byrne campaigns for Congress in Atmore, Alabama, Oct. 26, 2013.

The Republican establishment pulled out its first victory of the 2014 primary season Tuesday night. But the narrow win underlined the weakness, not the strength, of the party’s business-friendly moderate wing as it launches a national battle to wrest control of the GOP from the grassroots faction that sparked the government shutdown in October and has cost the party in the last two election cycles.

Deep in the south, former GOP state legislator Bradley Byrne edged his arch-conservative rival, Dean Young, in the GOP runoff for a vacant seat in Alabama’s First Congressional District. The Associated Press called the race for Byrne, who held a 52% to 48% lead with 99% of precincts in the Mobile-area district reporting.

Byrne’s triumph spared the GOP establishment the stinging embarrassment of losing the first battle of the intraparty war that both sides predict will play out in the 2014 midterms. Business lobbies, Fortune 500 company PACs, big-ticket donors and more than 20 members of the House GOP funneled cash to Byrne, who outraised Young by more than eight to one. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce forked over nearly $200,000 in independent expenditures such as direct mail, and handed Byrne a coveted endorsement. The polished candidate, who ran for governor in 2010, also garnered the support of the district’s former congressmen and multiple rivals in the nine-way GOP primary that preceded the runoff.

Byrne’s support was partly a testament to his talents, but perhaps more importantly a tribute to the fear Young inspired. On policy matters, there was little difference between the two candidates. But Young, a small businessman and former political aide to Alabama chief justice Roy Moore, ran a ramshackle campaign marked by a hard-edged religious conservatism that spooked GOP moderates. He invoked shutdown leader Ted Cruz as his legislative lodestar, disparaged gay marriage in vehement terms, and suggested Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

Byrne’s support in the district was wide but not necessarily deep, while Young tapped into Moore’s old political coalition. Public polling was scant and spotty, but both sides expected the race to be very close. “Gonna have to count every vote tonight,” a Byrne campaign adviser predicted in an Election Day email to TIME.

Though it had many of the hallmarks of a classic Establishment vs. Tea Party slugfest, only one side showed up. The leading grassroots groups, including the Club for Growth, Tea Party Express and the Madison Project, all passed on the race. Their absence irked Young, who fumed as he saw the checks pile up in his opponent’s account. “The establishment Republicans are embracing him and having fundraisers for him,” he told me recently. “Where are the national [Tea Party] groups?”

The GOP bigwigs who ponied up for will breathe sighs of relief Wednesday. But all their muscle could produce only a slender victory in a district that has long been represented by relative moderates. That doesn’t augur well for the Republican Party Establishment as it prepares to launch its counter-revolution against the Tea Party.

Byrne will face Democrat Burton LeFlore in the district’s general election on Dec. 17. The Republican is expected to coast to victory in a slice of the south where Mitt Romney trounced Barack Obama by 25 points.

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