As TNR’s Alec MacGinnis noted yesterday, the special Republican primary runoff in the Mobile-area first congressional district of Alabama is today’s entertaining sleeper race:

The closest and most relevant election Tuesday may turn out not to be any of those on the Eastern Seaboard that have been soaking up the media’s attention—for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, and for mayor in New York and Boston—but rather the special Republican primary for an open House seat in the deepest Deep South, in and around Mobile, Alabama. The primary has emerged as the first post-government shutdown battleground between Tea Party Republicans (represented here by wealthy businessman Dean Young) and establishment business-oriented Republicans (represented by Bradley Byrne, a former Democrat turned Republican officer-holder). Despite heavy spending by business groups, Young holds a slight edge in recent polls, which is causing grave disquiet for establishment Republicans who realize that the way back to the mainstream for their party is probably not continuing to elect people like Young, who declares that homosexuality “always has been, and always will be” wrong.

The Alabama runoff isn’t about basic ideology, as Ben Jacobs acutely observes at the Daily Beast:

In the race to be the GOP nominee in Alabama’s 1st Congressional District—tantamount to election in this deep red district—both candidates are staunchly conservative. Both the establishment and Tea Party candidate would have voted against the deal to end the government shutdown, and both view Obamacare as a grave threat to America.

Instead, the divide is about what tactics Republican activists think will be most successful as the next budget showdown looms. Do they want a firebrand who believes Barack Obama was born in Kenya or a political veteran who emphasizes the need “to work with people, in Washington and at home”? Their answer may influence the GOP’s strategy on Capitol Hill in the months to come.

Bradley Byrne is an old political hand. He’s a former state senator and member of the state board of education who narrowly lost the 2010 Republican nomination to be governor. Christianity has always been a strong part of his platform; he has said, “my faith in Christ is my foundation” and has insisted that every word in the Bible is true. He derides the “corrupt” IRS on his website and is backed by the NRA, the Chamber of Commerce, and Ending Spending, the super PAC largely funded by Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who considered running ads against Obama in 2012 that focused on his connection to Jeremiah Wright.

But Byrne might lose because he’s not conservative enough.

There’s some history here that’s relevant. Byrne is the classic old-school southern pol who has been forced by the ideological sorting out of the two parties to move steadily rightward, first out of the Democratic Party, then to every expression of ideological passion he’s been called to make. Here’s how I described him on the brink of his extremely narrow runoff loss to Robert Bentley in the 2010 governor’s race:

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.

Not only did Byrne repudiate that heretical religious non-fundamentalism; he sought to establish his right-wing bona fides by exemplary championship of another great conservative cause in Alabama, union-bashing:

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.

So despite, or perhaps because of, Byrne’s pedigree, he has to wear his conservative militancy on his sleep at every juncture. But he’s not the only ghost of the 2010 governor’s race that’s ever-present in the current runoff, as Alabama reporter John Sharp noted immediately after the primary:

Congressional hopeful Bradley Byrne said controversial Chief Justice Roy Moore’s involvement in the Dean Young campaign is a “real strength” for his opponent that he anticipates it will be tapped into during the runoff….

Moore is a popular judge who claimed the chief justice’s position last year and is well-known for his refusal to remove a 5,200-pound granite monument of the commandments from the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Building in 2003.

A state judicial panel ousted him as chief justice that year. Moore, who won the chief justice election last year, still maintains the federal judge’s order was unlawful and that he should not have had to follow it.

Young, an Orange Beach businessman and real estate developer, is a former Moore aide.

During the campaign, Young has closely associated himself with Moore.

The chief justice’s appearance at Young’s rally at Cottages-on-the-green in Foley brought a thunderous response from Young’s supporters.

“It’s about time that we have a real man on Washington,” Moore told the crowd.

An interesting comment, since the Member of Congress tonight’s winner will replace is Jo Bonner.

Yes, the Ten Commandments Judge has made his presence known in the campaign. He finished a relatively poor fourth (with 19% of the vote) in the 2010 gubernatorial primary (he finished second in 2006), and while he didn’t make a personal endorsement for the runoff, his campaign manager endorsed Robert Bentley over Bradley Byrne, and you could argue Moore’s intense following made the difference in a very close race. After a brief flirtation with a presidential bid in 2012 that caused a stir in Iowa Christian Right circles, Moore decided instead on a triumphal return to the state bench, and was indeed returned to the Chief Justice post.

If Young wins, you can be sure Roy Moore will be by his side tonight, and his presence in the campaign, along with Byrne’s serial descent into Christian Right rhetoric of his own, is a reminder that for all the efforts of national observers to distinguish the “Tea Party” from the “Christian Right,” they’re pretty much the same thing, especially in the Deep South.

We’ll see if Byrne’s money can offset Young’s fervor today. But if Byrne wins, let’s please don’t call it any sort of victory for “moderation” or a rebuke to conservatism. Jacobs is right; these birds disagree on some small elements of tactics and rhetoric, but in Congress, you can bet that Byrne will continue his career-long effort to protect his right flank with every vote.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.