President Donald Trump may be embroiled in scandal in Washington, D.C. But in Alabama — a state he won by nearly 30 points last fall — he remains extremely popular.
Look no farther the the state’s midsummer Republican Senate primary, where 10 candidates are running for the nomination to fill out the term of former Sen. Jeff Sessions, now Trump’s attorney general. Two of the top three candidates — with their supporters’ help — are trying to outdo each other in expressing loyalty to the president.
On Wednesday, the super PAC backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a TV ad that accuses one of those candidates, Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, of siding with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi against Trump.
The Senate Leadership Fund is supporting Sen. Luther Strange, the former Alabama attorney general who was appointed to Sessions’ seat by a governor he may have been investigating. (The governor has since resigned over an alleged sex scandal.)
The fund’s attack ad came days after Brooks released a digital ad (which he said will go on TV), expressing his commitment to building Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“If I have to filibuster on the Senate floor, I’ll even read the King James Bible until the wall is funded,” Brooks says on camera.
If no candidate crosses 50 percent in the Aug. 15 primary, the race will proceed to a runoff in September. The general election is in December.
All campaigns and outside groups are seeing the same poll numbers when it comes to GOP primary voters: Trump is the clearest path to their hearts. Which is why this slugfest between Strange (and outside groups backing him) and Brooks over who was (and is) a stronger supporter of the president keeps heating up.
Brooks originally supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president. He was the state chairman for Cruz’s campaign and a surrogate for him on national TV. He said he supported Trump in the general election.
But Strange and his allies are going all-in on the attack line that Brooks “refused to endorse” Trump.
Brooks defended his phraseology Tuesday night. “I say that about every election. Voters have tough choices,” Brooks said off the House floor, adding that “choices” is plural.
And the fourth-term congressman takes issue with the charge that he didn’t back Trump.
“I wrote him a check for $2,500. Does that count?,” Brooks said, reaching for his cellphone to pull up a digital image of the check. He wrote a check to the Alabama GOP “National Account” on Oct. 11, 2016 to assist with get-out-the-vote efforts in Florida.
Brooks said he wants to know what Strange did that was so much more supportive.
“I was very involved with a group, Conservative Lawyers for Trump, long before the election,” Strange said in a brief conversation off the Senate floor Wednesday. Asked if he donated to Trump’s campaign, Strange said he’d have to go back and look. Records from OpenSecrets.org don’t show any personal donations to Trump’s campaign from Strange.
On Wednesday evening, Trump’s Alabama Victory chairman contested Brooks’ claims that he endorsed Trump, linking to several interviews in which Brooks didn’t exactly embrace then-candidate Trump.
“You have to decide who is the lesser of the two evils, and then vote accordingly,” Brooks told The Duke Chronicle days before the election.
Victory Chairman Perry O. Hooper Jr. praised Strange for being “all in for Donald Trump in my successful efforts to help Mr. Trump win in Pennsylvania and Ohio.”
The Senate Leadership Fund is spending $2.5 million on a TV ad campaign in the state. Along with its affiliated group One Nation, it has budgeted $10 million to boost Strange.
“Not only did Mo Brooks viciously attack Trump, he suggested our President would be worse than Hillary and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t hide from his history,” fund spokesman Chris Pack said in a statement.
The Trump loyalty from McConnell’s group isn’t a sign of any newfound adoration for the president (whose affiliated outside group, America First Policies, threatened to run ads against the most vulnerable member of McConnell’s conference).
But it’s no secret McConnell doesn’t want Brooks in the Senate. The SLF and the National Republican Senatorial Committee want to protect the incumbent because he’s more likely to cooperate with leadership.
Brooks, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, stands by his conservative bona fides, acknowledging there have been some disappointments so far under the Trump administration.
“There are some Trump voters, especially those of us who believe in border security, who are disappointed that we don’t yet have Mexico paying for the wall, and we thought that, with this new administration, that work permits would no longer be issued to illegal aliens,” he said.
Brooks’ campaign refers to the SLF as Strange’s “fellow Swamp Critters,” and it released polling Wednesday evening in an effort to show that efforts to boost Strange aren’t working.
Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy S. Moore was ahead with 27 percent, followed by Strange at 23 percent and Brooks at 21 percent. (The campaign did not release the dates or methodology for the polling.)
Brooks expects to post $1.4 million in cash on hand for the end of the second quarter. But this might not be his only primary. He said Tuesday he will run for re-election to the 5th District if he doesn’t win the Senate seat, and several Republicans are already running there.
But for now, Brooks is only talking about this primary, calling Strange’s decision to attack him “the final nail in his coffin.” The congressman suggested that even if the senator does finish in the top two and he does not, Strange’s attacks will push Brooks’ voters to support Moore.
As two lawmakers in a nine-member state delegation duking it out in an increasingly nasty campaign, what kind of personal relationship do Strange and Brooks enjoy?
“I have a personal relationship with my wife,” Brooks said. “What kind of question is that?”
Pressed again, Brooks called the senator “congenial.”