How An Establishment Republican Survived a Primary in the Most Conservative District in America

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 14 2012 4:36 PM

A Republican Against the Tide

In a rare win for the GOP establishment, Rep. Spencer Bachus holds off the forces of anti-incumbency in the most conservative district in America.

Spencer Bachus.
Rep. Spencer Bachus beat challenger state Sen. Scott Beason in Alabama's republican primary

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

HOMEWOOD, Ala.—With zero percent of precincts reporting, Rep. Spencer Bachus’ biggest boosters have nothing to do. They arrive at city hall in this suburb of Birmingham, three minutes south of downtown and three minutes north of the state Republican Party headquarters. Security waves them on through an unadorned lobby. They pick up nametags, which entitle them to anything from a table of sodas, Chick-fil-A products, fancy cheese cubes, and miniaturized cupcakes dressed with chocolate icing.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Bachus had been challenged by the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a newish super PAC that blasts incumbents with six-figure ad buys. Why Baucus? Now chairman of the House financial services committee, Bachus had voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. According to 60 Minutes, he marked the occasion with some stock trades that protected his own money. Bachus and some Fourth Estate fact-checkers have blown off the story; the Office of Congressional Ethics hasn’t.

Here’s the important part—the super PAC has a candidate. Sen. Scott Beason is one of those handsome up-and-coming types who can’t stop squirming at the thought of a better job. (Beason stands a head and a half taller than Bachus.) He jumped into the race in January. He has “a chance,” according to the local columnist John Archibald, “because Attila the Hun is not running.” Bachus has spent $1.6 million to stop him, which is 45 times more than Beason has spent, but only six times as much as the anti-incumbent super PAC. Drive through the district, turn on a TV, and you see its ad with a warning about the money Bachus took from “the financial industry” and a photo of the congressman looking like he’s getting arraigned for setting a school bus on fire.

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If the Republican establishment is going the way of the Ottomans, it’ll be proven at the Homewood City Hall.

7:09 p.m.: Only a dozen or so people have arrived in a room that comfortably holds 200. Dennis O’Brien and his daughter locate some jugs of sweet tea from Milo’s. They’re a little worried about Bachus. It’s not fair that he has to hold off Armageddon.

“He opposes almost everything that the current administration supports,” says O’Brien. “Now, I don’t think 60 Minutes is taking orders; it’s after news. It’s news when the Department of Justice goes after a 20-year congressman. I just think it’s politically motivated.”

7:33 p.m.: A few votes have come in from the House race; statistical noise. The chatter is all about the issues that unfairly dogged Bachus.

“Immigration,” says Rod Reiser, who volunteered for Bachus. “Insider trading is not an issue to Alabamans. The illegal immigration bill is popular with Alabamans because they believe in rule of law, but it’s wrong. Alabama, because of its history, doesn’t really have much to teach people about how to go implement changes in civil rights laws.”

That’s off-message, and true. The immigration bill was probably Beason’s sturdiest campaign plank. In 2011, after Republicans won total kung-fu-grip control of the state legislature, they pushed through a model “self-deportation” law that basically encouraged cops and citizens to become immigration officials. If you saw somebody engaging in a possible crime—a robbery, maybe, or a trip on a road where a checkpoint had been set up—you asked for proof of citizenship. If you didn’t get it, the perp could be deported.

The law was generally popular across Alabama, but in this district, it was campaign gold in a jewel-encrusted pouch. Bachus represents the most conservative district in America, a swath of central Alabama that votes, on average, 29 points more Republican than the rest of the country. Perhaps Beason can get enough support, and two also-rans can get enough support, to force a runoff? The thought of Scott Beason in an even more powerful role worries people in this room.

“I think he’s done more to damage the state than anybody in recent times,” says Alan Zeigler, an attorney friend who has lunch with Bachus “a couple of times” each month. “Beason comes off, internationally, as a racist. The immigration bill comes off, as passed, as racist. It’s mean-spirited. Having parents deported because their kids come to school and people ask about their citizenship? As passed, it’s mean-spirited.”

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