Republican Senate hopeful Mo Brooks has seen his national profile rise in recent months with his unwavering support of former President Donald Trump in challenging the 2020 presidential election outcome, and his fiery speech near the White House before the Capitol insurrection on January 6.
But some political analysts believe the Huntsville-based congressman has more work to do in South Alabama, where Brooks has performed poorly in past statewide contests. Brooks will begin his push into coastal Alabama when he gives the keynote address during a “Stand Up Alabama” rally at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Spanish Fort Container Park. The rally is being held in the same location as a December “Stop the Steal” event, and is being hosted by the Common Sense Campaign tea party.
The trip to Spanish Fort is Brooks’ first public appearance in Baldwin County since the 2017 special U.S. Senate GOP primary, in which he finished in third place behind former Alabama State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and then-Senator Luther Strange.
Brooks generated 83,287 overall votes in that election, with 37% or 30,810 votes coming from his 5th congressional district in North Alabama. By contrast, in Alabama’s 1st congressional district – consisting of Mobile, Baldwin, Escambia, Washington, Monroe, and parts of Clarke counties – Brooks got approximately 8,400 votes, or around 10% of his overall vote.
The result was only slightly better than Brooks’ 2006 showing in the lieutenant governor’s race, in which he placed third behind eventual winner, Strange, and George Wallace Jr. In South Alabama, Brooks received 5,294 votes. That was good enough for only 7.8% of his overall 67,773 votes during that year’s election.
“He still needs to get that recognition,” said Jonathan Gray, a GOP strategist based in Mobile.
But Gray and others believe Brooks is in much better position to win over South Alabama Republican voters than during past contests, when other candidates – namely Moore, and Strange – were the top choices.
Gray said he believes Brooks’ name ID is within the 70 percent range in Baldwin and Mobile counties, whereas it likely never exceeded 50 percent during the 2017 contest. By the time the primary arrives on May 24, 2022, Brooks should have near universal name recognition among GOP votes, Gray predicts.
“I think he made up ground,” said Lou Campomenosi, chairman of the Common Sense Campaign. “He’s one of the leading Freedom Caucus voices supporting Trump. That has helped a lot.”
Campomenosi added, “I think, in the end, he was caught in a difficult situation when he ran last time. Name recognition may have hurt him. It may not have been his time. This is a much better time for him.”
Brooks is entering the 2022 Senate contest as the self-proclaimed “favorite” in the contest, a notion echoed by political observers in Alabama. Lynda Blanchard, a former U.S. ambassador to Slovenia under Trump, is the only other announced candidate. Other candidates rumored to run could face uphill battles in outmuscling Brooks and Blanchard in fundraising, or in name recognition. Though Blanchard is not as well-known as Brooks, she is entering the campaign with $5 million of her own money to spend on the race.
“If the business leaders coalesce around the state and recruit a candidate, then they might be able to put together a campaign that would eventually, a year from now, maybe threaten Congressman Brooks’ nomination,” said Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University. “But as of today, that is all anyone can do. He’s not only the frontrunner, but substantially the frontrunner.”
To put together a winning GOP candidacy, experts believe that Brooks is going to have to snatch up voters in coastal Alabama who have opted for other candidates in those past elections. During the 2017 special Senate primary, Brooks gained 14.75% of the vote in Baldwin County, finishing in fourth place behind Strange, Moore and former Alabama State Senator Trip Pittman of Baldwin County.
In Mobile County, Brooks finished with 14.2%, which was also a fourth place finished.
Michael Hoyt, chairman of the Baldwin County Republican Party, said he’s unsurprised to see Brooks visiting Baldwin County within the same week of announcing his Senate candidacy.
“His name recognition has gone up since he ran in that special election for the Senate seat,” said Hoyt. “But by coming here so soon, he understands the importance of building the relationships down here and solidifying that name recognition. Those running for statewide office understand the importance of the vote down here in South Alabama.”
The numbers were even worse in the rural counties, which heavily backed Moore in 2017. Brooks mustered only 3.7% in Washington, 5.4% in Clarke, 6% in Monroe and 7% in Escambia counties.
Jackie Gay, chairwoman of the Escambia County Republican Party, said Brooks did visit David’s Catfish in Brewton during the 2017 campaign, and met with local Republicans. She is hopeful he returns this time around, noting that candidates not from coastal Alabama have work to do.
“What hurts a candidate, specifically a Senate candidate, is if they are not as well known in other parts of the state (outside their home base), it hurts them,” Gay said.
‘Friends and neighbors’
Steve Flowers, a newspaper columnist, and former Alabama State House Republican often refers to the V.O. Key’s phrase, “friends and neighbors voting” in which the late political scientist refers to Southern candidates polling strongest in their home areas and much less elsewhere. Flowers said it exists in statewide contests, and it surely will play a role in the 2022 Senate contest.
“They will vote for someone in their neck of the woods,” Flowers said. He said in the most recent Senate primary illustrated the point: Former U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne of Fairhope polled strongest in Alabama’s 1st congressional district but struggled elsewhere during last March’s election. Byrne won seven South Alabama counties, but finished in third place behind former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville.
Byrne’s strong support during the primary arguably prevented either Sessions or Tuberville from winning the primary outright. The two went on to face each other in a runoff, which Tuberville won.
“He’s enhanced himself with the extreme right wing of the Republican Party,” said Flowers. “He’s not going to get the hometown vote in Mobile and Baldwin counties. You can’t get more extreme (geography-wise) between Mobile and Baldwin counties and Huntsville and Madison County. I think friends and neighbors is strong. You saw it with Bradley Byrne.”
Flowers said it’s “too early” to tell who else will enter the race, though none of the rumored entrants are from Mobile or Baldwin counties.
‘Roy Moore candidate’
Brooks will also have a chance to secure voters who were aligned with Moore in 2017, particularly in the state’s rural areas.
Thomas Shaw, a political science professor at the University of South Alabama, believes Brooks is currently the “Roy Moore candidate, but without a lot of the Moore baggage.”
“His presence and actions in defending Trump and on January 6 will have raised his stature among stalwart conservatives,” said Shaw. “There will likely be some upstate/downstate bias, but given his rise in national profile, I don’t think it will be as hard for him to overcome that as it has been previously.”
Analysts do not believe Brooks is automatically the Moore candidate, though there are immediate similarities. Moore, during the 2017 primary runoff, was opposed by the Senate Leadership Fund headed up by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Before the runoff, Brooks was on the opposite end of negative campaigning by the SLF.
It’s unclear if the SLF or McConnell will get involved ahead of next year’s primary.
“I think Mo may hope Mitch McConnell endorses someone else,” said Brown, the retired professor. McConnell has seen his approval rating plummet among Kentucky Republicans since his fallout with Trump in recent months.
Flowers said the biggest difference in Moore and Brooks is the religious “cult-like” appeal Moore once had over voters through his quest to display the Ten Commandments in public.
“(Moore) was identified with the religious issue … that cannot be transferred (to another candidate),” said Flowers. “But I think that voter is ripe for Brooks to appeal to.”
Flowers said there could be one obstacle, and that is the Brooks family’s connection to the Mormon church. Among Christians in Alabama, only 1% identify as Mormon, according to a 2014 Religious Landscape Study through the Pew Research Center.
“I don’t know if that issue will rise in that race, but you may see it in direct mailing to religious voters,” said Flowers. “He could be vulnerable in that regard.”
Another vulnerability could be among business-minded Republicans. Gray said it’s something that already emerged in Huntsville, where federal reviews are underway over the U.S. Air Force’s decision to move the Space Command’s headquarters to Huntsville.
“Mo Brooks’ vote contesting the election made people nervous,” Gray said. “There are a lot of chamber of commerce and business-esque people who are very nervous about Mo Brooks. They think he’s a lightning rod of controversy.”
Gray said something to keep an eye on during the campaign is whether Brooks can discipline himself and his fiery rhetoric.
“Can Mo Brooks walk a straight line?” said Gray. “Can he fan the flames, stir up the base and take those gas lighting and lightning rod issues people in the Republican Party now and not paint himself in the wacky corner. That is Mo Brook’s challenge.”
Gray said the “wacky corner” would mean devolving into conspiracy theory rhetoric popular on fringe social media sites that can “creep people out.”
“There is a fine line between what happened in the election and how people were done wrong and what needs to change … that is out there, and those are the facts and people are in Georgia changing voting laws,” said Gray. “But then you get into the fringe group where there is a group of people who think Washington is (overtaken) by child predators and who are putting minors into sex slave operations.”
Gray added, “Mo has done pretty good except he’s taken on some real liabilities with things that are important for Alabama. We saw in Huntsville that he was willing to join into the political fight (for Space Command). But if you look at that, there are people who are (concerned) he was willing to throw away what is going on in Huntsville to make a stand for the Republican base. Is it possible to be that cavalier going forward? There are people scratching heads.”
Talking about the issues, specially about bringing more jobs to rural areas, could also be important for Brooks as the campaign starts.
Gray said that taking a stand on local issues in coastal Alabama will not matter, such as staking positions on infrastructure projects like the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project. A focus on local issues did not matter in the last Senate contest, Gray said, acknowledging that Tuberville won the race without discussing specifics.
But, he added, “Mo Brooks needs to find his way to South Alabama and embed himself into some local issues here to give him the opportunity to talk about his conservative position on things.”
In Washington County — where Brooks won a meager 7 votes during the 2006 lieutenant governor’s primary and 66 votes in the 2017 special Senate election – “concentrating on the state of Alabama” will be important, said county GOP chairman Willie Long Jr.
“The main thing I’m hearing from people is they want people in Alabama making this decision and not folks coming from the outside to influence the race,” Long said.
Gay, in Escambia County, said bringing more jobs to rural Alabama is the key issue facing her voters.
But the primary could be heavy on appealing to Trump and his policies on immigration, trade and hot bed social and cultural issues like gun rights and abortion. The former president remains popular in Alabama where he won by 26 points in November.
“Mo Brooks getting to be more well-known here,” said Kathy Morelock, a past-president of the South Baldwin Republican Women’s organization and a Foley resident. “His profile has certainly been elevated because of his positions and his support Donald Trump.”
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