Republican rep roils Alabama Senate race

Republican rep roils Alabama Senate race
© Greg Nash

Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksTemporary status for immigrants shouldn't mean permanent residency Whatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong GOP lawmaker pushes to end sports leagues' tax-exempt status MORE’s (R-Ala.) Monday announcement that he’ll enter Alabama’s Senate special election sets up a high-profile clash between the conservative congressman and the Republican establishment.

The Senate GOP leadership has already lined up behind Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to the seat in February to replace Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsCurtis wins Chaffetz's former Utah House seat Overnight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny FBI can’t unlock Texas shooter’s phone MORE. But Brooks’s candidacy shows that leadership hasn’t cleared the field of potential primary challengers, meaning that Strange might not face an easy path to reelection.

Alabama’s Aug. 15 Republican primary will likely serve as the de facto general election given Alabama’s staunchly conservative politics, a fact that Brooks made clear in his announcement speech.

Warning about a country put “at risk” by those who “want to allow noncitizens to vote,” gun control advocates and those who “seek to destroy our values and faith in God,” Brooks made clear who should shoulder the blame.

“The solutions of America’s challenges are there — the roadblock to these solutions is the United States Senate,” Brooks said in an apparent attempt to tar Strange as a Washington insider just months into his tenure.

Brooks was active in Alabama politics for decades before winning his House seat in the 2010 Tea Party wave. But while he’s cruised to reelection in subsequent primaries, he’s raised eyebrows among more moderate Republicans by making a slew of controversial comments, including repeated accusations that Democrats have sponsored a “war on whites.”

Brooks has $1.2 million in his campaign account, according to a March filing, compared with Strange’s $763,600.

Strange already faces a rocky path in the August primary, thanks in part to questions about his appointment to the seat by ex-Gov. Robert Bentley (R) and his own involvement in a convoluted investigation of the governor.

As Alabama’s attorney general, Strange asked the state House Judiciary Committee to pause an investigation into impeaching Bentley for misusing campaign funds and for an alleged affair with an aide, instead allowing his own office to continue “related work” on the case.

But when restless state lawmakers pressed Strange on when he would take action on Bentley, the attorney general later clarified that he could not confirm or deny a probe into the embattled governor. Bentley eventually appointed Strange to Sessions’s seat, later resigning the governorship in April over his affair.

The optics of Strange’s appointment will likely be a prime line of attack for his Senate opponents.

“[Strange’s opponents] can make the case: ‘We’ve earned where we are. Luther was granted this in a suspicious bargain with a now-disgraced governor,’ ” said Bill Britt, the editor of the Alabama Political Reporter.

“I think as long as someone’s got money to keep making that pitch, Luther’s toast.”

Still, the GOP establishment has made it clear that Strange will have the party’s full backing. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) says that it will treat him as an incumbent, a move that both gives Strange powerful allies and could hinder his challengers’ campaigns.

The NRSC doesn’t work with campaign vendors who help primary challenges to incumbent senators, so anyone siding with Brooks could get put on that blacklist.

Last week, the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), a super PAC with ties to Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell expects Paul to return to Senate next week Former Hill staff calls for mandatory harassment training Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Ky.), announced a $2.6 million TV ad buy to boost Strange’s bid.

The SLF pushed back on Brooks just hours after his announcement with a statement charging that he, not Strange, is the real Beltway politician.

“While Luther Strange was cleaning up the corruption in Montgomery, Mo Brooks was living the life of a Washington insider, opposing Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE and failing to get a single bill signed into law in four terms in the House,” said SLF spokesman Chris Pack.

“It’s clear Mo Brooks is more interested in advancing his own career than he is with delivering for Alabama.”

It’s too early to tell if outside groups or vendors will defy that pledge — the field is still shaking out ahead of Wednesday’s filing deadline. A spokesman for the conservative Club for Growth, a group that Brooks cited in his announcement for giving him high marks, said only that it is watching the race.

Along with his penchant for controversial comments, Brooks hasn’t always sided with House GOP leadership — two factors that make him an unappealing senator in the eyes of leadership.

Brooks refused to vote for the first iteration of House leadership’s healthcare bill, eventually backing the revised bill after the conservative House Freedom Caucus extracted more concessions. During the healthcare debate, Brooks took flak for saying that that people who “lead good lives” shouldn’t have to pay as much for healthcare.

And when Republicans began to sour on then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerThe two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery One year later, neither party can get past last year's election White House strikes back at Bushes over legacy MORE (R-Ohio) in 2014, Brooks vocally encouraged others to challenge John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerThe two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery One year later, neither party can get past last year's election White House strikes back at Bushes over legacy MORE.

While the GOP establishment in Washington has rallied behind Strange, Brooks and some other Alabama Republicans have slammed Strange’s D.C. allies.

Brooks has denounced Washington Republicans as “swamp critters” who want to “strong-arm” Alabama voters into reelecting Strange.

State Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican Senate hopeful, and state Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, who is eyeing a bid, have made similar attacks.

“All I would ask is that they let Alabama choose its senator,” Marsh said earlier this month, according to The Montgomery Advertiser.

“I don’t consider Gov. Bentley’s hand-chosen senator to be the incumbent. I think the people will choose that in an election cycle.”

But Strange supporters don’t see it that way. 

“Folks who are upset that they weren’t appointed think that he shouldn’t be treated as an incumbent, but the fact is he is, and he’s an absolutely critical piece of the puzzle in terms of delivering on a Trump agenda,” a Senate Republican campaign operative told The Hill. 

“I think everyone’s doing the right thing by backing Luther Strange.”

Despite pressure from the Senate Republican leadership, though, the GOP field continues to grow. Along with Brooks and Henry, other declared candidates include suspended Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, Christian Coalition of Alabama President Randy Brinson and businessman Dom Gentile.

And Marsh would be considered a high-profile contender should he decide to run.

Moore was suspended in September for encouraging lower courts to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Despite that setback, Alabama observers say he has a base that will show up to the polls.

Prior to Brooks’s official entry, a recent poll found Moore with a dominant lead, followed by Strange in second and Brooks in third. But Moore and Brooks could split their shared conservative base.

“[Brooks is] a conservative choice that doesn’t have the baggage that Roy Moore does,” Britt said. “He’s a firebrand. He likes to shake it up. He’s the kind of politician we like down here.”

With so many candidates in the race, a runoff tentatively set for Sept. 26 is a real possibility. Along with Strange, Moore, Brooks or Marsh are considered the most likely contenders for a possible runoff.

As the field continues to take shape ahead of the May 17 filing deadline, Alabamians are gearing up for their first contested Senate election since 1996.

“It’s all focused right now on the 17th to know who’s in and not,” Britt said. “But I think it’s going to be a real battle.”

Updated at 8:45 p.m.