Nine candidates competed in Tuesday's Republican primary for the vacant U.S. House seat in Alabama's 1st District, with the two top vote-getters heading to a Nov. 5 runoff.
One thing is certain about this district: Like the rest of Alabama, and most of the South, the Mobile-area district is firmly Republican and conservative.
While Burton LeFlore is the Democrat on the Dec. 17 special-election ballot, the GOP runoff between Bradley Byrne, who got 35 percent of the primary vote, and Dean Young, who won 23 percent, is tantamount to election.
One of them will fill the seat left vacant by Jo Bonner, who resigned his seat in August to become vice chancellor of the University of Alabama.
"Either would vote a strongly conservative line in Congress," Marty Connors, former state Republican chairman, told Newsmax after the primary vote was counted. "If there is any difference between the two, it is strictly stylistic."
He noted that Byrne, former state senator and past chancellor of the Alabama Community College System, is more focused on issues such as taxation and regulation. Real estate developer Young is motivated more by social issues such as abortion and marriage.
There also is a case to be made that, with the Republican Party growing by leaps and bounds since it first waged a significant statewide campaign in 1962, it now has developed its own factions.
Byrne, who lost the nomination for governor in 2010, is considered a candidate of the GOP's "establishment" and the business community. His backers include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Rep. Jack Edwards, who held the 1st District from 1964-84.
In contrast, self-styled political "outsider" Young was endorsed by the hero of Alabama's cultural conservatives, state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, famed for refusing to implement a federal judge’s orders to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state Supreme Court building.
"Bradley and Dean are both heavyweights," Connors said. Recalling the famous brawls of the early 1970s, he said, "You could say that Bradley is Muhammad Ali and Dean is Joe Frazier — both champs, but with different styles."
This situation represents an almost 180-degree turnaround from the politics of Alabama only a half-century ago, when "solid South" meant "solidly Democrat" and the state's few Republicans met in the proverbial telephone booth.
In 1962, Gadsden petroleum products distributor James Martin stunned the state and the national punditocracy by coming within 6,019 votes — 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent of the total vote — of unseating four-term Democratic Sen. Lister Hill.
"Jim's Senate race was the equivalent of the allies' landing at Normandy in World War II," Connors said. Two years later, Barry Goldwater swept Alabama's electoral votes and Republicans won five of the state's eight U.S. House seats.
From there, political events moved fast and furiously.
Alabama Republicans held their first contested statewide U.S. Senate primary in 1972, and in 1980 elected former Vietnam POW Jeremiah Denton as the state's first Republican senator since Reconstruction.
In 1986, voters chose Guy Hunt, three-time state chairman of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns, as Alabama's first Republican governor in 106 years.
Today, Republicans hold every statewide office, both U.S. Senate seats, and "supermajorities" — two-thirds of the seats — in both the state Senate and House of Representatives. The last Democrat to carry the state for president was Jimmy Carter from neighboring Georgia in 1976.
These days, the only worry among Alabama Republicans is that the state's trial lawyers and members of its teachers unions, realizing that Democratic candidates have no chance, will cross over into the Republican primaries and try to influence their results.
Writing about Alabama's first serious Republican Senate race in 1962, columnist Drew Pearson speculated that "for the first time since Reconstruction, the two-party system, which political scientists talk about for the South, but never expect to materialize, may come to Alabama."
Pearson was only half-right.
As Mark Kennedy, former Republican congressman from Minnesota and now director of political management at George Washington University, told Newsmax: "The Alabama 1st District election results suggest that the solid-South tilt from blue to red remains firmly intact."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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