Alabama GOP gears up for fierce Senate primary clash
Alabama Republicans are heading for a dogfight in the state’s Senate primary, with GOP voters in the reddest of states set to forecast which of the party’s disparate wings could be ascendant in the November midterms.
The nominating contest is largely a race between Rep. Mo Brooks (R) and Katie Boyd Britt, the former chief of staff to retiring Sen. Richard Shelby (R), whose seat they are running to fill. Also in the mix is Mike Durant, a former Black Hawk pilot who was shot down in Somalia in 1993.
The primary represents a clash of résumés that appeal to various flanks of a fractured GOP, from an incumbent hard-liner with an endorsement from former President Trump to a politico with deep ties to the business community and establishment lawmakers to an outsider Army veteran making his first foray into politics. And with none of the three establishing themselves as an early front-runner, Alabamians are gearing up for a slog.
“We have a wide range of values and issues that are important to people in a primary election, and each of these candidates represent values that showcase that diversity,” said Alabama GOP Chairman John Wahl. “I think all the candidates have good support and represent values of the Republican Party.”
Brooks entered the race last summer as the initial favorite and has a long reputation as a conservative firebrand, emerging as a top opponent of certifying the 2020 presidential election results. Trump later endorsed him in April, saying Brooks “is fighting for voter integrity (like few others).”
But the race has tightened significantly after Britt honed her messaging and went on a campaign blitz that’s already taken her to each of Alabama’s 67 counties.
Durant, for his part, has left operatives scratching their heads, though he remains a contender with personal wealth and the support of a super PAC.
Britt has surprised some political watchers with a recent surge. An August poll showed her badly trailing Brooks, 41 percent to 17 percent, but a December survey showed her just 5 points behind.
She also has a commanding fundraising edge, finishing the third quarter of 2021 with $3.3 million in the bank compared with $1.8 million for Brooks. Meanwhile, Durant and outside groups are vastly outspending Brooks and Britt on ads.
With the competition heating up, expectations are growing that no candidate wins an outright majority in the May 24 primary, triggering a June runoff.
“I think that it’s gonna be very hard for any of them to get 50 percent plus one,” said David Mowery, an Alabama operative who works with Democrats and Republicans. “I think right now it’d be a coin flip as to who gets into the runoff.”
That dynamic will likely produce a knife fight into the summer — with all three candidates doubling down on their conservative bona fides in one of the nation’s most Republican states.
“They’re going to do a really great job of pointing out how each of the other is either a turncoat, a traitor or worthless,” Alabama GOP strategist Jonathan Gray said.
Brooks, a six-term incumbent, is recognized across the party as a diehard conservative and is leaning heavily on the Trump endorsement to boost his qualifications. He’s pushed that imprimatur to highlight his ideological credentials and tarnish his opponents as squishy centrists.
“Mo Brooks has consistently been rated as the most conservative member of Alabama’s Congressional delegation,” said Brooks campaign spokesperson Will Hampson. “The comparison of records couldn’t be clearer. Mo Brooks is a proven conservative, with a proven record. Katie Britt is a moderate.”
However, Brooks’s congressional obligations have prevented him from preaching that on campaign stops, and early warning signs suggest the Trump endorsement alone won’t secure his nomination.
Brooks was booed at a rally with Trump in Cullman in August when he urged the crowd to put the election “behind you” amid grumbling over unsubstantiated voter fraud claims. At the same time, Brooks could alienate Alabama’s suburban primary voters, many of whom are still conservative but are not as interested in the red meat Brooks usually dishes.
“There are pockets of Alabama that are fiscal conservatives but don’t want to hear anything about social issues. Not that they’re not pro-life, not that they don’t believe in traditional marriage, that’s just not driving them to vote,” said Chris Brown, another Alabama Republican strategist. “The higher educated people in the suburban areas want to hear a compelling reason … not just ‘I’m conservative.’”
Brooks has also handed Britt a tactical opening by frequently being away from the stump.
“How has Mo Brooks not been out there campaigning, stumping, building alliances, having fundraisers? How did he cede six, seven months of opportunity to someone that wasn’t even in third place … seven months ago?” Gray asked. “I can’t get away from that.”
To be sure, Brooks is no dead man walking, and his hold on the far-right base will be hard to beat.
Britt enjoys the quiet support of several senators, including Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), whose political operations have donated to her. Sens. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) were also spotted at a fundraiser for her last month.
The support from those lawmakers and the business community — she was previously the CEO of the Business Council of Alabama — will likely help maintain fundraising. But the establishment flank of the party is not in vogue with today’s GOP grassroots, and in a pure battle of the bases, she could find herself on her back foot.
“I think that there’s still a larger amount of country music Republicans than country club Republicans. You can’t just rely on the Business Council types and the traditional Republican conservatives,” Mowery said.
Britt has sought to bridge that gap by leaning into her business support and GOP culture war issues, including saying recently that tech companies are “working to cancel conservative, Christian thought.”
That strategy and her expansive presence across Alabama are credited with jolting her into contention.
“She has done a really good job of showing both sides that she not only can speak the language of them but kind of is both of them embodied in one thing,” Mowery said.
Britt’s campaign indicated that tack will be front and center in the final five-month stretch.
“Katie is surging in the polls because Alabamians know that she is the best candidate to protect our Christian conservative values, preserve the American Dream and fight back against Joe Biden’s radical agenda. She has already visited all 67 counties on the campaign trail and is proud to be the strong grassroots conservative in this race,” campaign spokesperson Sean Ross said.
It remains an open question as to where Durant stands in the primary.
“The real question is, who does he impact?” asked Gray. “Mike is a real question mark.”
Looming over the race is the GOP’s failure in the 2017 special Senate election, when Democrat Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore, the Republican nominee who faced child molestation accusations.
While none of the three candidates would likely coast in a general election, that pressure is still in the back of Republicans’ minds as they try to envisage how the primary ends.
“It looks like the race will go to a runoff,” said Jefferson County GOP Chairman Paul DeMarco. “It’s hard to predict what will happen because there’s so many unknown factors. The primary is five months away, the runoff another six, so who knows what issues will raise their heads between now and then?”
Updated at 9:28 a.m.