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.

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.

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.”

8:10 p.m.: Three fridge-sized TVs play each local station. The networks are closer to calling the state for Rick Santorum than they are to calling Bachus’ race. But Bachus is up by plenty, and the cameras need to be fed, so he walks out to talk to reporters.

“We’re at 67 percent,” he says. “That’s only from the first boxes of votes, but that doesn’t count areas where we’re strong. We had 200 volunteers, or more than that. We had over 100 donations, locally.”

I ask Bachus why the super PAC went after him. “They went after Fred Upton,” he says, nodding at the chairman of the energy and commerce committee. “They went after John Mica. They’re going after all the chairmen.” He’d criticized the immigration bill, and he’d been weakened. “My father, he hired black subcontractors. He was one of the first contractors in Alabama to really stand up for the rights of black citizens. I’ve been inspired by that.”

What about the TARP and trading stories? “Well, 60 Minutes—that turned out to be not true. They said I short-sold GE after they got into trouble. That’s absolutely false. A lot of financial news—you might expect it from the mainstream—but a lot of financial news, they fell for it.” A mustachioed handler named Lamar Lavender crooks his finger; Bachus goes to talk to some well-wishers.

9:04 p.m.: Rep. Robert Aderholt, a congressman who represents the area just north of Bachus, arrives to start congratulating. He had endorsed Rick Santorum, but he didn’t expect to walk into a hotel ballroom and see Santorum announced the winner in Alabama and Mississippi. “It was the power of positive thinking!” he says. He’d encourage Newt Gingrich to quit, but he didn’t want to be too negative about it.

A number of voters at the party had been saying they disliked TARP; they voted for him, they just hated the bill. Aderholt had voted against TARP. He didn’t see any friction with his friend Spencer.

“We’ve compared notes,” he says. “It was a tough vote. It was one of those things—you  hear the scenarios, you hear the Treasury secretary come in and propose a doomsday scenario, it’s tough. I respect people who voted the other way.”

10:00 p.m.: Bachus’ handlers come to the middle of the room, bearing campaign signs. They hand them off to anyone who wants to be on TV. Two dozen or so Republicans volunteer for the human diorama. Bachus walks out quickly, flanked by a red, white, and blue balloon arch that could have come from Captain America’s prom.

Bachus gives one of the least inspiring victory speeches I’ve ever heard. “It’s very important that your congressman—congresswoman—represent, represent your views,” he says, haltingly. “Never has the anger in this country been so great. I can certainly identify with those who voted for someone else.”

It’s dull and gracious. Beason hasn’t even called to concede. Bachus walked to the balloon arch only after an AP reporter called to say that Beason was breaking the bad news in his hotel ballroom. Local news has cut away from another Newt Gingrich concession in order to cover Bachus, now up 58-25 over Beason, as he bemoans money in politics.

“The people of Alabama rejected the special interest super PACs in a big way,” he says. “We sent a strong message to the super PACs that they can’t come in and buy an election.”

Stronger than a lot of Republicans wanted. Mitt Romney’s aligned super PAC bought 65 percent of Alabama and Michigan ads. He lost. Judge Roy Moore, the man who was chief justice until he tried to display a Ten Commandments monument in his court, is beating an incumbent judge, taking his old job back. Everyone at Bachus’ party has entered a time-distortion field, where the Republican establishment can hold off any challenge, where apologizing now and then for bad behavior can save you from voter anger.

Bachus leaves the stage and runs through media interviews. He spots a black cameraman whose dreadlocks spill down his back. “You look just like the new player from the university.” Is this a gaffe? No. The cameraman has a cousin who’s been playing for the Crimson Tide. Bachus is surviving. He pauses between handshakes, and I ask him what he thinks about Judge Moore beating the establishment to win his old job and share a ballot with Bachus and the rest of the GOP.

”Hah!” laughs Bachus. He puts a hand on my shoulder, encouraging me not to say anything stupider than this.

Why did he blanche? In his wilderness years, Moore had backed an earlier, weaker challenger to Bachus. The congressman had put the pretender away without much angst. And then came the Tea Party; then came the super PAC. I’d just reminded Bachus, accidentally, that things were never again going to be so easy for the Republicans who win power, use it, and occasionally compromise.