BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—Congressman Mo Brooks has been mystified watching the feud between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump play out over the past few days.
“It’s like watching a ping-pong ball bounce all over the place,” he told me Thursday morning at a diner in Decatur, where he was campaigning.
In Brooks’ case, the sparring is wholly dissonant with the reality he’s been living in the closing stretch of the Senate special election primary campaign. Though Trump and McConnell—well, mostly Trump—may be waging a show rivalry in the headlines over the Senate’s failure thus far to advance the president’s agenda, they’re united in the Republican establishment’s No. 1 electoral goal this summer: Helping Sen. Luther Strange, a reliable vote, keep the seat he inherited from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, despite two feisty, far-right primary challengers
The Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-affiliated super PAC, has bombarded Brooks, the conservative Freedom Caucus member, in television ads and a messaging campaign since the day he declared. Only recently has the group turned its attention to phase two: doing the same thing to Roy Moore, the controversial former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who has a loyal following among the religious right. And earlier this week, Trump jumped into the race with an endorsement of Strange. It was a critical development in a race that has been largely characterized by the three candidates competing to show the most affection toward Trump, in one of his most admiring states.
Trump’s endorsement of Strange, following months of air support from McConnell’s allies against Strange’s opponent, has put Brooks in line to finish third—just out of the runoff between the top two candidates should no contender get a majority in Tuesday’s primary.
Brooks is not a very expressive person. When he talks to you, he looks you straight in the eyes with his head completely still. He speaks in a flat, serious voice and doesn’t gesture. By Thursday, he just seemed winded, trying to make sense of the vise he’s been put in, and barely able to contain his frustration with Trump’s inconsistencies.
“On the one hand, President Trump is expressing great dissatisfaction with the lack of progress being made in the Senate on substantive bills,” Brooks told me. “But on the previous day, he endorses the Mitch McConnell candidate who wants to keep the 60 percent rule in the United States Senate that obstructs the entire President Trump agenda.
“I don’t get it.”
Brooks, to the satisfaction of congressional procedural nerds everywhere, has made elimination of the Senate’s legislative filibuster a central plank of his campaign. At a candidates’ forum just outside of Birmingham on Thursday night, Brooks asked the Jefferson County Republican Party: “Do you support a rule, or do you support America?”
The problem for Brooks is that Republican primary voters won’t listen to his breakdown of parliamentary procedure if they think he’s a supporter of both Nancy Pelosi and the Islamic State. That’s the impression some voters have thanks to one of the more outlandish ads from the McConnell-affiliated super PAC. Brooks also has to convince these primary voters that he doesn’t hate Donald Trump, as another Senate Leadership Fund hit—one that aligns him with both Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren—implies. In 2016, Brooks was a strong supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and said during an appearance on MSNBC that March that “I don’t think you can trust Donald Trump with anything he says.”
At campaign events like the Jefferson County Republican Party meeting Thursday night, Brooks implored his audience to check out his “Trump score” on FiveThirtyEight, which shows how often he votes with the president (92.5 percent). But it’s a steep, uphill climb for him to change voters’ minds once he’s been defined this negatively in television ads.
I chatted with one voter in the meeting, an elderly woman from the Birmingham suburb of Chelsea, who told me she was a Moore supporter. (She would not give me her name.) She didn’t like “what Brooks has been saying about the president. He’s downing the president.” I began to explain that Brooks had indeed criticized Trump, but it was last year, and she got confused.
“Who’s that guy that comes on television says that the president is—‘don’t believe anything he says’—who’s that?” I explained again, and she asked if Brooks feels the same way now that he did last year. I told her he claims not to.
“Well they ought to take that off the TV,” she said. “I mean, that’s ridiculous. That’s not good, is it?”
Brooks told me that the voters who know him best—those in the northern part of the state, around Huntsville and Decatur, in his congressional district—“think it’s absurd that Luther Strange would try to portray me as a Nancy Pelosi lover, as a supporter of the Islamic State, as opposed to national defense.” His numbers are strongest in his home turf. But in the central and southern parts of the state, he said, “Luther Strange has been able to pull the wool over the eyes of some number of them.” The most recent polling, which positions Brooks in third place overall, bears that out.
Until recently, the strategy for both Strange and Brooks was to get into a runoff with Moore and waltz to victory. Moore, a hero to many evangelicals, is suspected to have a high floor and a low ceiling of support. (Sound familiar?) While going after each other nearly exclusively for so many months, the Brooks and Strange campaigns allowed Moore to maintain his lead in the low-30s and the best favorability ratings in the field. The Strange campaign now believes that if Brooks wasn’t finished already, the Trump endorsement likely put the nail in the coffin, and it’s time to move on to the next course. The Senate Leadership Fund began its barrage against Moore earlier this month.
If Moore fears what’s already started to come his way and is about to get much worse, he doesn’t show it. The so-called Ayatollah of Alabama is an easy-going, folksy retail politician and doesn’t let the squeeze play coming from McConnell and Trump get into his head.
Where Brooks can’t mask that he’s devoted hours of mental energy trying to figure out exactly when and how Trump decided to endorse Strange, and what the real meaning of Trump’s feud with McConnell is, Moore leverages the Beltway bickering to his advantage.
“I don’t pay attention to the interactions in Washington between those people,” he told me Thursday night. “I can’t tell you what’s going on no more than you can. I don’t know what they’re doing up there. I know they’re not moving the agenda forward.” When I asked who he’d rather face in a runoff, Brooks or Strange, he told me “whoever’s second,” and let out a big laugh.
At the Jefferson County forum, each candidate was given a meager five minutes to make his case.
Brooks, feeling a bit rushed, rattled through a list of his credentials, his rankings from outside conservative groups, and his endorsements from “conservative thought leaders” like Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity. He implored listeners not to believe the lies from “the swamp,” and insisted that he did not love Nancy Pelosi and ISIS. He’s a Trump man, he said, and the key to securing Trump’s agenda was eliminating the Senate filibuster, as Strange and McConnell are loath to do.
Moore likes to keep his pitch simple. He had no time for discursions on parliamentary procedure. Instead, he talked about strengthening the military, a process that he does not believe involves accommodating transgender soldiers. He talked about bad trade agreements sending jobs overseas. And last, he plugged his book, which detailed the growing threat of “judicial supremacy” from liberal, activist judges who insisted they were above the Constitution. He was able to fill his five minutes.
Luther Strange was not able to fill his five minutes. He only appeared at the event roughly 15 seconds before he was scheduled to speak and made some opening pleasantries about how he was from Jefferson County. The remainder of his speech amounted to a two-minute, line-by-line recital of his endorsement conversation with President Trump. After that, he described a separate conversation he had with the president earlier on Thursday.
Brooks, who had been sitting in the front row for the event, grabbed his stuff and migrated to the back of the room once Strange began to speak. He’s disgusted with the Strange campaign. He’s disgusted with McConnell. As the event was wrapping up and Brooks was leaving, I asked him if he had soured on Trump now, too. But he can’t say that.
“I just want to say kudos to Mitch McConnell,” he said. “Mitch McConnell got his guy.”