The fight for the soul of the Republican Party is being fought out in a little-noted open Republican primary in southern Alabama that pits an establishment Republican (and former Democrat) against a tea party insurgent, Dean Young, who vehemently opposes gay marriage and applauded the government shutdown to try to derail Obamacare.

As The New York Times reports, corporate donors have been pouring money into the race to try to get Bradley Byrne, seen as the more mainstream candidate, elected next week and to push back against tea party encroachments. But it may be too late. In primary elections, usually the most motivated and ardent voters turn out at the polls, and these days among Republicans, that’s the Christian right.

In the aftermath of the shutdown last month, business leaders from Washington and around the nation have vowed to play a greater role in coming primaries like this one.

They are increasingly concerned that a core group of anti-establishment conservatives in the House is threatening to derail their agenda, not just in terms of keeping the government open for business, but also when it comes to passing a comprehensive new immigration law, revising the nation’s tax code and making changes to the health care law, instead of just trying to kill it.

A second test case already emerging is in Michigan, where business groups are aligning behind Brian Ellis, a Grand Rapids investment manager who is trying to oust Representative Justin Amash, a Republican who was one of the core House lawmakers who supported the shutdown.

Another factor, of course, is gerrymandering. The Alabama race is in District 1, which looks like an amoeba seeping across the southwest corner of the state (it includes Mobile). The voters are predominately white, and conservative Republican, so whoever wins the GOP primary runoff will in all probability prevail in the special general election.

The Washington Post notes that races like this draw the attention of tea-leaf readers (pardon the pun):

Especially in off-years with few instances of voters casting actual ballots, special elections receive a great deal of attention as observers and strategists look for clues about the larger environment.

As a result, they are sometimes overread. So it’s important to view this Alabama race for what it is: A contest in a heavily conservative district with several competing interests. And in the end, it will probably say nothing about the head-to-head battle between Republicans and Democrats heading into 2014.

But with the tea party lined up behind a slate of candidates running against a Republican who doesn’t have much support from the far right, the race could say something about the GOP, which is engaged an ongoing effort to find its identity following a disappointing 2012 election.

In reality, these are just the kinds of races that tell us which way the wind is blowing. With congressional districts so gerrymandered, the Republican-Democratic head-to-head elections aren’t as significant as the interparty squabbling, because whoever wins little-noted races like these will gain control of the GOP in the House.

As we saw during the shutdown, Congress these days is controlled by the tea party fringe, and its power comes from turning out the right wingers in primaries in safe districts such as the one in southwest Alabama. These are exactly the tea leaves we should be reading. The Democrats won’t be able to send the tea party into political quarantine: It’s up to the Republicans to rid their own house of the race-baiting modern-day Know-Nothings. Whether they can will have profound effects on the country’s direction.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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