AMAC Exclusive By: Daniel Roman
While everyone is watching the unfolding debacle in Afghanistan, Donald Trump is taking his battle for the soul of the Republican party to Alabama, where he will hold a rally for Congressman Mo Brooks. Brooks, a loyal ally of the President, is running for the Senate seat of the retiring Richard Shelby, an infamous pork-barrel politician, first elected as a Democrat, and who for a long time chaired the appropriations committee. Brooks’s primary opponent, Katie Britt, is Shelby’s former Chief of Staff, and (presumably) enjoys the backing of Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell.
“I see that the RINO Senator from Alabama, close friend of Old Crow Mitch McConnell, Richard Shelby, is pushing hard to have his ‘assistant’ fight the great Mo Brooks for his Senate seat,” Trump said in a statement last month. ”She is not in any way qualified and is certainly not what our Country needs or not what Alabama wants. For Mitch McConnell to be wasting money on her campaign is absolutely outrageous.”
The Alabama Senate race provides an early look at the interesting questions about the future of the Republican Party, not only in the state but perhaps nationwide. Will the coalition of upscale suburban Republicans and former Democrats who have run the state maintain their hold on the office? Will their loss of Senator Shelby’s seat to a populist conservative undermine their position at home, given Senator Shelby’s role as their political patron? And are there any signs whatsoever of a Democratic Party in Alabama worth contemplating at all?
Alabama is a blood red state, one where the exception, former Democratic Senator Doug Jones, who won a 2017 special election over former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in 2017, proved the rule. Jones appeared to realize that his 2017 victory was a fluke, owed to Moore’s personal predilection for underage women, inability to understand why anyone would object to it, and the fact that for Republican-leaning voters, control of the U.S. Senate was not on the line in 2017. Jones never seemed to believe that his 51%-49% victory could be repeated, and voted in the Senate as a party-line Democrat, including against the Supreme Court Nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who was overwhelmingly popular in Alabama. When 2020 came, Jones lost 60%-40%.
That 20-point victory seems like a good description of the partisan balance in the state. Joe Biden did slightly worse in 2020 (62%-37%), and no one, least of all former Senator Jones, who has ruled out a 2022 run, seems to believe that a Democrat is likely to do much better than that. Most of the action in Alabama politics thus takes place within the Republican Party itself, where like many southern states, Alabama’s Republican party is a hodge-podge of different groups. There are conservatives who first broke with Democrats over their soft on Communism approach during the 1950s in voting for Eisenhower. Then followed those who defected in the 1960s. Democrats today love to point to these Dixiecrats, but they actually make up the smallest percentage of the state’s Republican party, a point demonstrated by the fact that the GOP elected only one Senator from Alabama until 1996. The heart and soul of the state’s Republican party is split between those early conservatives, making up perhaps 30% of the electorate as shown by results in the 1950s, the professionals who gravitated to the expanding suburbs and exurbs in the 1960s-1990s, and finally party switchers, most of whom switched between 1995 when retiring Senator Richard Shelby made the jump, and 2002 when current governor Kay Ivey made hers.
For Republicans to lose, they generally need to lose both the D-R switchers, and the upscale Republican “RINOs”.
There is reason to believe that if it is unlikely any Republican can lose both groups again, it is particularly unlikely that Mo Brooks will be the one to do it. Brooks is a great might-have-been. If he had been the Senate nominee in 2017, as someone who was both an anti-establishment champion of Donald Trump and a three-term congressman from the district which contains Huntsville and is the closest thing to a swing area in the state, Brooks would likely have united the party and won an easy general election victory. But he came third in the primary between the incumbent Attorney General Luther Strange, and Moore, setting up an upscale versus conservative runoff in which Moore had the advantage in despite his flaws. Brooks now seems to largely have the “conservative” lane to himself. He has proven his loyalty to Donald Trump, helping lead the charge against the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the electoral college. He has also run the closest thing to a competitive election of any of the major candidates, who as we will see, otherwise involve individuals with no prior electoral record. He defeated an incumbent Congressman (albeit a former Democrat, Parker Griffith) in his 2010 primary, and faced viable Democratic opponents (for Alabama) who managed 43% and 39% in 2010 and 2018.
Brooks is still in many ways a factional candidate. He is also in a different faction from the Senator he is running to replace. Richard Shelby was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1986, defeating Jeremiah Denton, a former Admiral and Vietnam POW who was Alabama’s first Republican Senator since Reconstruction. Reelected in 1992 as a Democrat, Shelby switched parties in 1995 (after Republicans took Senate control in the 1994 Gingrich Revolution), and he rose up the ranks to Chair the powerful Banking Committee. Shelby was a conservative Democrat, and while a reliable Republican vote in the Senate, never seemed comfortable with the populist intensity of the conservative grassroots. This was most evident in 2017, when Shelby very explicitly declined to endorse Roy Moore, all but tacitly encouraging his supporters to vote for Doug Jones in the general election.
While Shelby is not running, his former Chief of Staff, Katie Britt is. Britt has never run for office before, so her politics must be assessed by her two major areas of involvement. That of serving as Shelby’s de facto deputy, and subsequently heading the Business Council of Alabama. Her husband, a former NFL player, now works for Alabama Power. A former Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator does not run for office if they are not the handpicked designated heir of their former boss. To do so would be futile, as all of their connections and influence are tied to that individual. As such, it can effectively be assumed Britt is Shelby’s candidate.
But what, precisely, is her faction? Britt as CEO of the Business Council of Alabama clearly is linked to the state’s economic interests, but she is adopted into it through her links with Shelby. She grew up in Cullman, a city of 15,000 about 50 miles south of Huntsville in rural northern Alabama. That is far from the power centers of Shelby where the GOP aristocracy is based. Northern Alabama remained Democratic until 2010, and it is likely Britt, with her background with Shelby, involvement in sports and economic development, represents the sort of local political interests which switched parties in the 1990s and 2000s, much as Shelby and Governor Ivey do.
The challenge for Britt is she likely needs both the upscale suburban Republicans and the old-style former Democrats to have a chance of beating Brooks. Her post Shelby job makes her well-placed to appeal to them over Brooks, but she needs to deal with the threat posed by two additional candidates.
The most prominent is Lynda Blanchard, a businesswoman who served as Ambassador to Slovenia under Donald Trump from 2019-2021. The founder of a real estate investment firm, and married to another real estate figure, Blanchard along with her husband donated more than $2.6 million to Republican causes between 2015 and April 2019. Whereas Mo Brooks’ involvement in politics comes from running in elections, and Britt from serving on the staff of a U.S. Senator, Blanchard’s comes from money. Originating from suburban Montgomery, she is a representative of that wing of the party.
Other candidates may enter the race too. Bradley Byrne, a former US Representative for the first district and Senate candidate in 2020, has a similar profile to Britt except with the advantage of having held elected office. Former Congresswoman Martha Roby may run, but having suffered underperformances in both primaries and general elections, it is hard to tell how serious her prospects would be.
Alabama’s primary elections function in two rounds. The first is an all-candidate primary. If no candidate wins 50%, then the top two candidates go onto a second round. All indications point to Brooks coming in first in the initial primary. In fact, the one public poll we have, sponsored by the Club for Growth, shows Brooks at 59% to 13% for Blanchard and 9% for Britt. But the Club for Growth backs Brooks’ campaign and he has the highest name recognition, a strength which can be expected to deteriorate. Blanchard’s asset is money, and Britt’s is institutional support, especially from Senator Shelby and potentially Governor Ivey. If it goes to a runoff, then one of those two might have a chance to win. Britt probably has a much greater chance than Blanchard, though both would still be underdogs to Brooks. Whoever wins will almost certainly be the next senator.
Nonetheless, the outcome will have greater implications for Alabama’s future. A victory for Britt over Brooks would solidify the position of the Alabama establishment. It has used conservative votes to rule, and occasionally sent populist conservatives to DC, but generally kept Montgomery in the hands of representatives either of the party switchers or Republican elite, whether that is former Governor Bill Riley or Ivey. Brooks winning would encourage a similar candidate to make a bid for governor.
Democrats have little at stake, though they would have to decide between being able to fundraise nationally off of Brooks, or being able to have civil relations with Britt. Maybe, a takeover of the entire Alabama GOP by Brooks-style Republicans might provide a path toward an eventual Democratic revival in the state, but that would be a long way off, and would require the party to abandon all pretense of liberal, anti-police politics in favor of effectively being the party of local interests and high-income voters. In the meantime, the real battle is over the future of the GOP.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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