Brooks’s prior attacks on Trump could hurt in Alabama Senate race

Brooks’s prior attacks on Trump could hurt in Alabama Senate race
© Greg Nash

Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong GOP lawmaker pushes to end sports leagues' tax-exempt status Rep. Mo Brooks: We should end federal government support to NFL MORE (R-Ala.) is locked in the race toward a contentious August primary to fill the Senate seat once held by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsIntel leaders: Collusion still open part of investigation Republicans jockey for position on immigration Biden to Alabama: No more extremist senators MORE. But Brooks’s previous attacks on President Trump could pose a problem for him in a state Trump won by nearly 30 percentage points.

Brooks declared during last year’s GOP presidential primary that he could not trust a “serial adulterer” like Trump, then offered Trump only lukewarm support in the general election against Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE

ADVERTISEMENT
Alabama Republicans have in the past punished GOP lawmakers perceived as anti-Trump at the ballot box. With Brooks looking to defeat Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) and serve out Sessions’s entire term, he could be forced to account for his previous criticism of Trump.

Brooks’s past remarks could hurt him in the race against Strange and Roy Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court justice who has made his name with high-profile religious liberty fights. But Brooks brushed off the remarks in an interview with The Hill, saying the attacks on Trump were just part of his support for Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong This week: Congress gets ball rolling on tax reform Week ahead: Senators work toward deal to fix ObamaCare markets MORE’s (R-Texas) own presidential bid.

“When I’m in combat, a political fight, I use all weapons at my disposal, as I’m sure all of the candidates do. Once the fight was over with, it was important for our nominee to win the election,” Brooks said.

“I’m not going to rehash the arguments I used to try to persuade voters to vote for the candidate of my choice in the primary, Ted Cruz. I will say, right now, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE is a vastly superior choice to the alternative of Hillary Clinton.”

Brooks was far from the only Alabama lawmaker who didn’t back Trump in the presidential primary. Then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R) endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich, while Rep. Mike Rogers (R) supported Jeb Bush.

But Brooks stands out for his primary attacks on Trump’s politics and personal life. 

“I think what you are going to see 12 to 18 months from now is that a lot of people who have supported Donald Trump, they are going to regret having done so,” Brooks told MSNBC in February 2016, one day before the pivotal Super Tuesday primaries. 

“For those of us who believe in certain things like border security, like a stronger economy, like a strong national defense, like low taxes, like moral values, you’re going to find that on a significant number of those issues, Donald Trump is not going to do what people think he’s going to do.”

Brooks went further later in the interview, arguing that Trump’s marital history shows him to be untrustworthy.

“Donald Trump is an adulterer,” Brooks said. 

“I don’t support people who support adultery and I don’t trust people who are serial adulterers, as Donald Trump has been and bragged about in writing, because I don’t think that is an honorable thing or trait in a person.”

Brooks tamped down his criticism after Trump’s primary victory, but only offered tepid support. After the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump speaks lewdly about grabbing women, prompted other Republicans in the state such as Rep. Martha RobyMartha RobyBrooks’s prior attacks on Trump could hurt in Alabama Senate race How the GOP came to dominate, and be dominated by, rural voters House GOP not sold on Ryan’s tax reform plan MORE to call for Trump to step aside, Brooks asked voters to back the entire ticket and said Trump was “a better option than Hillary Clinton.”

Since the election, Brooks has become an outspoken Trump supporter.

A few weeks after the election, Brooks gave a speech on the House floor defending Trump’s claim, presented without evidence, that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” 

“A circus of left-wing media pundits immediately pounced on President-elect Trump’s opinion in an effort to silence serious discussion of the noncitizen voter fraud problem,” Brooks said. 

“If the left-wing media pundits continue to summarily dismiss and turn a blind eye to the problem, it will be harder to stop future elections from being stolen.”

Brooks has also incorporated Trump-style messaging into his Senate bid. Brooks’s campaign website includes a page where he promises to help “ ‘Drain the Swamp’ by standing up to the corruption and powerful special interests.”

But Brooks’s change of heart may have come too late for a state that picked Trump by a 28-point margin.

Alabama voters have already sent a message to one GOP lawmaker seen as anti-Trump. Roby, who withdrew support for Trump and called on him to step down after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, won her 2016 reelection by just 9 points in her heavily Republican district.

Trump, on the other hand, won the district by 32 percent — outperforming Roby by 23 points.

“I think this will come back to haunt [Brooks] since he’s said critical things against someone who is a very popular president, at least as far as this state is concerned,” said William Stewart, a University of Alabama professor emeritus and state political expert.

Brooks already appears to be struggling to break out in the primary, although he still has five weeks to rally before the Republican primary on Aug. 15, which is widely viewed as a de facto general election. 

Brooks’s own internal polling in May, taken before he jumped in, showed him in third behind Strange and Moore, according to an interview Brooks gave to The Montgomery Advertiser.

An Alabama Republican strategist not tied to any candidate in the Senate race told The Hill that more recent private polling on the race has Strange and Moore at about 20 percent each, with Brooks down to high single digits.

But Brooks told The Hill after the story's publication that his own polling from last week found Moore at 31 percent and Strange at 23 percent with Brooks close behind at 21 percent. That poll surveyed 500 likely Republican voters last week, he added. 

That dynamic is why the Alabama Republican strategist told The Hill that he believes the issue of Brooks’s attacks on Trump will only be raised by Strange’s allies if it can play to the Senate appointee’s advantage. Both Brooks and Moore hail from the northern portion of the state, so Strange could benefit from Brooks’s rise if it means taking votes from Moore.

“If he starts rising at the polls, I would think that of course this will be brought up,” the strategist said. 

“But the question is who is he stealing votes from? If he’s stealing votes from Moore, then they might just be inclined to sit back and watch.”

If Brooks’s past comments about Trump stand to be a liability, his opponents have difficulties to surmount too. 

Strange stands to benefit from Washington’s decision to treat him as an incumbent following his February appointment. That means that the National Republican Senatorial Committee and groups like the Senate Leadership Fund, the unofficial super PAC of Senate GOP leadership, will spend on his behalf.

Strange could need that outside money, since he alienated some wealthy members of the Alabama business community while serving as attorney general. 

And Strange’s appointment to the seat by Bentley brings its own problems, with opponents charging that Bentley picked Strange because of his handling of an investigation into the governor. Bentley has since resigned and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges over the scandal, which grew from an alleged affair with an aide.

Moore’s ardent conservatism has bordered on the party’s fringe, which could hurt his shot with moderate Republicans.

Moore lost his position as chief justice twice — once in 2003 after opposing an order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the federal building that houses the state Supreme Court, then in 2016 when he refused to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

But Brooks has more baggage of his own, even setting aside his Trump attacks. While his frequent presence in TV and radio interviews could boost his campaigns, they’re also prime opportunities for Brooks to make gaffes — as he did when he accused Democrats of launching a “war on whites” or said that people who live “good lives” should pay less for health insurance.

Brooks told The Hill after the story's publication that Republicans need to make the right choice in August because Democrats have been outperforming historic results in recent special elections. Even in a state as red as Alabama, there have been some statewide close calls like Moore's chief justice election in 2012, when he beat the Democrat by 4 points. 

"Republicans better be on guard in this special Senate race," he said.

"We better nominate our strongest candidate because in the special elections we’ve had so far this year in Kansas, Montana, Georgia and South Carolina, the Democrats are averaging about 7 to 8 points better than what historical election data would suggest they could do.”

Alabama Republicans agree that Brooks’s past comments about Trump won’t be the end of his candidacy, in part because his top primary opponents sport significant baggage of their own. Brooks is also helped by the fact that Cruz, whose campaign he supported with his attacks on Trump, is popular in the Alabama GOP.

“It’s not like he was a Kasich guy or someone that didn’t resonate with Alabamians,” the Alabama GOP source said.

“He’s running against two very wounded candidates ... but he’s not going to spend the money now. He’s taking the old strategy of ‘go up when you can stay up.’ ”

With Trump finishing his fifth month in office, Brooks is pitching himself as an ardent Trump supporter both on the trail and back in Washington.

In an interview with The Hill, he noted that the president called him to thank him for voting for the House’s ObamaCare repeal bill, saying that Trump is “appreciative of his recognition of the efforts I was engaged in.”

“I personally think that Donald Trump appreciates a fighter and is now happy to have me on the same team as him,” Brooks said.