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In the hours leading up to the chaos that descended on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, Rep. Mo Brooks in front of the crowd just a few hundred yards from the Washington Monument and asked if they were willing to sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of freedom. “Today is the day American patriots start knocking and kicking names,” said the Alabama Republican, wearing a MAGA red “Fire Pelosi” baseball cap and body armor.
A few hours later, many of those in attendance at the pro-Donald Trump rally in the Ellipse had breached the Capitol, besieging lawmakers and breaching the building’s defenses for the first time since 1814. Shortly after, Brooks joined more than 140 colleagues in votes against the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. But Brooks’s actions earlier in the day infuriated many of his colleagues, leading some of them to consider the rare step of evicting Brooks from the house. Brooks doubled down, calling for a national forensic audit of the election and holding back unfounded claims that Antifa was partially responsible for the Jan. 6 violence.
Still, 14 months later, Trump withdrew his approval of Brooks to represent Alabama in the Senate, complaining that Brooks had “woke up” and had insufficiently supported his Big Lie. Trump may have commented on Brooks’ ability to extend a 44-point lead in the GOP’s primaries. In the end, the many times Brooks had bent back to keep Trump happy turned out to be irrelevant.
Such is the fickle nature of Trump leading the Republican Party: Support is never permanent, whims dictate strategy, and grievances outweigh the evidence. Yet it is one of the most powerful drivers of American politics today. And nowhere is that more evident than in Alabama, where Senate representation has been decided by Trump more often and at times more effectively than any other state.
A brief summary of Trump’s meddling in Alabama thus far: he picked the incumbent senator to serve as attorney general, a tortured tenure that resulted in his instant dismissal; he then waded into a fraught, messy race to fill the seat, which ended up in Democratic hands for the first time in more than 20 years; he successfully campaigned against that aforementioned Attorney General’s attempt to return to the Senate; and then he approved and disapproved of Brooks before backing his opponent, who won the nomination Tuesday night and probably the Senate race with it.
In other words, Trump’s belly-based approvals and his overwhelming need to be seen as a winner could have a greater impact on Alabama’s voting patterns than any district in Huntsville, Birmingham, or Montgomery. His rule was a striking contrast Tuesday night to the result in Georgia, where Republican voters passed on Trump’s choice for two seats in the House. If Robert Penn Warren crowned fictional Willie Stark king of an unspecified southern state, the real kingmaker in Alabama may well be Trump.
Alabama is, of course, a strange place for Trump to gain political insight. A New Yorker who now calls West Palm Beach, Florida, his home, Trump always seems as out of place as possible when he stops by the state. Yet the Republican voters there hang on his every word.
Trump’s relevant political ties to the state date back to February 2016, when then-Sen. Jeff Sessions became the first sitting senator to back his bid for the presidency just days before Alabama entered Super Tuesday. Sessions expanded his role as an informal adviser to the campaign, and as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he also helped Trump navigate his promises about Supreme Court nominees — a move that helped Trump convince skeptical evangelicals who don’t really like the thrice – married New Yorker, but saw potential in reforming the Court to nullify abortion rights. For a while, Sessions was even on the shortlist for Trump’s running mate.
When it came time for the president-elect to appoint an attorney general, Sessions was well received. Several of his senior staff had already populated the transition team, including the executive director who served as Sessions’ chief of staff. And Sessions shared Trump’s views on immigration, a key ingredient Trump’s team believed would keep his coalition together. (Instead, Trump treated his first attorney general like a punching bag and eventually fired him.)
Sessions’ departure from the Senate in early 2017 opened the door for Luther Strange, then the state attorney general, who had already said he intended to run for the seat, whether appointed or not.
Trump had other thoughts. While Strange was a reliable voice for Trump’s agenda and hadn’t contradicted the president in any meaningful way, Trump was still unsure whether it was the right choice. White House aid workers intervened and convinced Trump to stick with Strange in both the primary and runoff rounds. Brooks, who also entered that race, was convinced that McConnell and his team had misled Trump and said so. Still, in the second round, Strange fell short of Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court judge whose record included installing the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and his courthouse, and instructing jurors to pray.
Republicans in Washington warned against having anything to do with Moore, who was accused of assault and dating teens in his 30s. Trump nevertheless supported Moore and campaigned for him. Moore would go on to lose to former civil rights attorney Doug Jones by 1.6 points in a state that Trump had beaten by 28 points a year earlier.
When it came time for Jones to be re-elected in 2020, Trump decided to play the ball again. He waited until the second round to throw his weight behind Tommy Tuberville, a retired Auburn football coach, in his bid against Sessions. Trump’s former AG tried to make amends with Trump, but the president wanted none of it and worked to help Tuberville, who would later try to help Trump’s Big Lie triumph during his early days in the Senate.
Which brings us to this week’s runoff. Initially, Trump had sided with Brooks. After all, Brooks had embraced Trump’s paranoia about voter fraud, going so far as to sleep in his Capitol Hill office to avoid going home, where he believed he was vulnerable to a deadly threat from those plotting against the former president. His Twitter profile was “Mo Brooks – Endorsed By President Trump” and his campaign literature called him “MAGA Mo”.
But as the repercussions of January 6 became more apparent, Brooks began to wobble in Trump’s eyes. Brooks dared to say it was time for Republicans to move past the 2020 election. He called the certification the final word on the election on Jan. 6, 2021, saying Congress could do nothing to “restore” Trump, who continues to insist it is still possible. Trump withdrew the endorsement even as Brooks declined to testify before the panel investigating Jan. 6.
Brooks denied that he had “wake up” and he was not wrong. He reportedly cheered the crowd on and tried to regain Trump’s favor in recent weeks. When that failed, he lashed out at the former president as being unfaithful.
Trump didn’t blink. He supported Katie Britt, a former chief of staff to Senator Richard Shelby, who is retiring. Britt and her husband wisely sought a hearing from Trump, who seemed impressed by Britt’s husband, a former NFL player. Brooks and Britt battled to a draw in the May 24 primary, leading to Tuesday’s runoff election, which Britt won by 26 points.
The results were not unexpected. Before becoming a MAGA-soaked Trump critic, Brooks had linked himself to Trump, mistakenly assuming loyalty would be rewarded. Brooks campaigned unevenly in every way, while Britt — a Hill insider turned lobbyist — ran like an outsider. At 40, she is the youngest woman in the Senate and can hold the seat for decades. Which of course sounds pretty appealing whether you’re a Trump interested in cementing a legacy or if you’re a Trump just fueled by revenge.
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