JACKSONVILLE, Ala. — When Rep. Mo Brooks walked into Crow Drug Health Mart here late Thursday morning, he was greeted with a reality check.
“The Luther ads have killed you. Not killed you, but they have made a difference,” said Jay Colvin, a middle-aged pharmacist who owns the store on the perimeter of the town square.
Brooks is locked in the special election Republican primary for the Alabama Senate seat, which Jeff Sessions vacated when he became President Donald Trump’s attorney general. In the crowded GOP field of nine candidates, the top three contenders are Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill the vacancy, Roy Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, and Brooks.
If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the Aug. 15 primary, the top two advance to a September runoff.
Strange’s allies, most notably the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have been flooding the airwaves with ads, with a number of them hitting Brooks for not supporting Trump.
Brooks made his case to Colvin that he was the best candidate to advance Trump’s agenda. A key part of his argument centered on an arcane Senate procedure.
Colvin listened intently as Brooks explained what he called the most important difference between him and Strange: support for a 60-vote threshold to move legislation forward in the Senate. Brooks wants to eliminate that threshold, saying it blocks major legislation, and Strange wants to keep it.
“That definitely influences my vote,” Colvin said. He asked Brooks for one of his campaign signs to hang in the store’s window.
Trying to break through
The key challenge facing Brooks is how to spread his campaign message — which he boiled down to “ethics, proven conservative, and I’m the candidate that supports Donald Trump’s agenda” — while also counteracting the negative ads.
In the home stretch of the primary, Brooks has launched a “Drain the Swamp” bus tour around the Yellowhammer State, borrowing a phrase from Trump’s own campaign. On Thursday, he stopped in four towns in northern Alabama.
Wearing a royal blue polo shirt with “Mo Brooks Congress” embroidered in white letters, Brooks stopped to talk to people in coffee shops and stores. He would introduce himself as a Senate candidate, ask if they have any questions, and almost always ask if they’ve seen the ads about him on T.V.
The ads come from the Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The group has waged an all-out ad campaign backing Strange, and hitting his opponents.
A key theme of the ads has been Brooks’ support for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz during the GOP presidential primaries last year, and his own criticisms of Trump. Brooks declined to directly say that he would vote for Trump after a leaked Access Hollywood video revealed Trump making sexually aggressive comments in 2005.
Brooks has responded by tying himself to Trump, and arguing that he is most likely to back the president’s agenda.
Brooks told voters he met that he donated to the GOP’s get-out-the-vote efforts after Trump became the nominee. He also encouraged them to visit the website FiveThirtyEight.com and see how often he voted in support of White House priorities.
And, Brooks is touring Alabama using the same bus that Trump used when he visited the state during last year’s campaign. In an interview on the bus, Brooks sat with a small glass case to his left, which contains two Trump campaign hats, one of them autographed.
What type of senator would he be? Drawing again from one of Trump’s campaign mantras, Brooks said, “An America-first senator.”
But Brooks will have to make sure that message is heard throughout the state, especially in the southern parts of Alabama where he is not as well-known. (His 5th District sits in the northern tier of the state.)
In addition to face-to-face meetings, Brooks said he plans to counteract the negative ads with his own response ad, which he launched Tuesday. Brooks said talk radio hosts are also spreading his message, and he is a frequent guest on radio shows (he did at least two radio interviews between stops on Thursday).
Clay Campbell, a 34-year-old farmer from Munford, said he appreciated Brooks’ accessibility.
“Ain’t nobody else been by to see us, have they?” Campbell said, sitting at a table at Jack’s, a Southern fast food chain. The Munford restaurant, off Route 21 where pickup trucks outnumbered other cars in the parking lot 2-to-1, was Brooks’ first stop Thursday morning.
Small groups of mostly older men had breakfast while Brooks greeted them. Some were undecided about whom they would support in the primary, but Campbell said he would be voting for Brooks.
“He’s very approachable. You hear it. If you listen to the radio, you know where he stands on a whole lot of issues,” Campbell said. “He keeps people up to date on what’s going on, where a lot of people get elected and you don’t hear from them.”
The money problem
One of the major challenges facing Brooks’ campaign is money, and he readily admitted that to the voters he met Thursday.
At a meeting on the edge of the Coosa River in Gadsden, one man questioned why he wasn’t hearing as much about the circumstances surrounding Strange’s appointment.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Strange to the seat in February. Strange, the state’s attorney general, had reportedly asked a state House committee to stop investigating Bentley due to his own office’s ongoing probe. (But while seeking appointment to the Senate seat, Strange denied that his office was investigating Bentley.)
The governor later resigned after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges for using government money to cover up an affair. Strange’s critics said his appointment raised questions of a quid pro quo agreement.
“In my campaign, we don’t have enough money,” Brooks told the group of about 10 voters in Gadsden, implying that he can’t run as many ads to highlight the issue.
Brooks and Strange’s campaigns both had more than $1.3 million in cash on hand at the end of the second fundraising quarter, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Moore had more than $261,000 on hand.
But Brooks said he cannot compete with outside spending supporting Strange. The Senate Leadership Fund is expected to spend up to $8 million backing the incumbent.
Brooks could get some last-minute help by outside groups on his side.
While on the bus Thursday, Brooks and his team received news that a Texas-based political action committee called the Madison Project had launched a $68,000 radio ad buy in Alabama on Strange’s appointment.
As Brooks was addressing the small group in Gadsden, the Senate Conservatives Fund announced it was backing him. The group regularly backs Republicans challenging GOP incumbents.
But it’s not clear how much the fund will spend to support Brooks. The group had more than $300,000 in cash on hand at the end of July, according to FEC documents.
Brooks could also get some help by Alabamians who are fed up with the negative ads.
“I think I might as well scream if I hear another Luther Strange ad,” said Alice Pruett, a 78-year-old former prosecutor who attended the Gadsden event and is backing Brooks.
While many negative ads are coming from the Senate Leadership Fund, some voters associated them with Strange. Brooks said he’s heard of that frustration in the early days of his bus tour.
“In my mind Luther Strange lost the election the moment he broke his promise to run a positive campaign and began his attack ads,” Brooks said on the bus. He said there is resentment that groups like the Senate Leadership Fund are spending so much on the race.
“We Alabamians are an independent bunch,” the congressman later said. “And we like making our own decisions without being dictated to by big government Washington politicians.”