Donald Trump endorsement flip-flop roils Senate race in Alabama

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Rep. Mo Brooks, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama, plasters his campaign rallies with signs for “MAGA Mo” and echoes Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

His rival, Katie Britt, says there were “major problems” with the vote, but has stopped short of Trump’s baseless assertion that it was stolen. She fought her way to the front of the race with the help of GOP leaders Trump derides as “RINOs” — Republicans in Name Only.

But in the lead-up to Tuesday’s runoff, Trump is squarely behind Britt — who is regarded by local Republicans as the front-runner — and drawing fierce criticism from Brooks, making for one of the most unusual conclusions to a primary fight this year. The winner of the GOP nomination will begin the general election as a heavy favorite in this ruby-red state.

Trump’s endorsements in the 2022 Republican primaries

A year ago, Trump’s pick seemed obvious: He endorsed Brooks, the loyalist who once boasted that he “led the charge” to reject Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. But as Brooks fell in the polls in March, Trump abandoned him and raged over the congressman’s suggestion that voters “look forward” to 2022 and 2024, eventually issuing a last-minute endorsement for Britt.

The flip-flop and its aftermath show how Trump’s freewheeling endorsement strategy in the midterms has at times scrambled the GOP’s battle lines, forcing some longtime allies to fight for his voters and leaving some staunch supporters of the former president feeling disillusioned. His uneven record and some surprise picks have stoked debate among voters, strategists and even candidates about his grip over the movement he claims to lead.

In the closing days of the race here in Alabama, Brooks has been accusing Trump of ditching his political movement to pick a winner after humiliating defeats in other states.

“If I give someone my word, I stick to it,” he told reporters after his Friday rally at the Huntsville airport, days after venting to an Alabama columnist that Trump “has no loyalty to anyone or anything but himself.”

Waiting in line for a picture with Brooks at the event, Steve Henderson said he used to think Trump would help the GOP by running for president in 2024. But after Trump’s reversal in the Senate race, the 60-year-old said, he’s not so sure.

“People had more passion for Trump in the beginning,” echoed Sara Williamson, 76, who was waiting behind Henderson with a camera in hand. “It’s like a marriage. You’re passionate in the beginning, then things go wrong.”

“When things get heated, what comes out?” she said. “The truth … I think now that we are seeing who Trump is.”

A spokesman for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.

Trump has posted a shaky record in contested Republican primaries so far this year. His preferred candidates for governor suffered defeats in Georgia, Nebraska and Idaho, while he has had success in U.S. Senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he backed candidates some saw as insufficiently conservative. A pair of primaries in South Carolina for the U.S. House last week amounted to a mixed outcome for Trump.

As in other Republican primaries, Trump’s endorsement has long been seen as a coveted stamp of approval in Alabama. Former Republican Alabama congressman Bradley Byrne — who is friends with both Britt and Brooks, and declined to share his vote — recalled his first conversation with Britt about the Senate race. “Katie,” he said, “the first thing you need to do is go down and see President Trump.”

Trump remains popular in the state, where he won 62 percent of the vote in 2020. Some political observers said Brooks’s harsh words for the former president could hurt the congressman in the runoff.

But the ups and downs of the GOP primary have also undercut the notion of Trump as Republican kingmaker. Brooks lost ground to rivals Britt and Mike Durant despite Trump’s early endorsement; the congressman got a second wind in the race after Trump jumped ship. And Britt pulled far ahead in Alabama’s May 24 primary, winning 44.7 percent of the vote to Brooks’s 29.2 percent and triggering a top-two runoff because no candidate won a majority.

By the time Trump announced his new endorsement on June 10, Britt was widely favored by strategists and observers to win Tuesday’s runoff. David Hughes, a political science professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, said the former CEO of Alabama’s business council represents the “business wing” of the GOP but has also worked to chip into Brooks’s dominance with the “grass-roots populist” camp.

Hughes and others noted that Britt has stayed away from statements that could raise Trump’s ire and alienate his supporters — even as she appeals to voters who look on Trump unfavorably.

“It’d be another thing if Britt was on the campaign trail, you know, really critical of Trump,” said Hughes, who directed recent polling on the Alabama Senate race. “But she’s not. She’s been smart enough not to engage in that kind of rhetoric.”

Even after Trump picked Brooks, Britt and her campaign maintained a connection, according to Byrne, the former congressman. Britt, a former chief of staff to retiring Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R- Ala.), met with Trump and went to one of his rallies.

“Katie and her people were pretty savvy about, you know, going to the Trump world and saying, hey, look, this guy you’ve endorsed is not doing well,” Byrne said, citing his conversations with members of the campaign. “And I think it got their attention.”

Britt’s campaign did not make her available for an interview. Sean Ross, a Britt campaign spokesman, did not comment on Britt’s efforts to win Trump’s endorsement. “Alabamians are sick and tired of do-nothing career politicians, and they’re ready for fresh blood,” Ross said in an emailed statement. He called Britt “the best candidate to fight in the U.S. Senate to defend Alabama’s Christian conservative values, advance the America First agenda, and grow 21st century opportunity for hardworking Alabama families.”

Boosted by millions in super PAC spending — much of it from groups with ties to Shelby and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — Britt has pitched herself as a fresh face with Christian and conservative values. Her campaign ads focus on issues like inflation and border security and take aim at the Biden administration.

On the day Trump endorsed her, Britt tweeted, “President Trump knows that Alabamians are sick and tired of failed, do-nothing career politicians.” Since then, Britt has not heavily emphasized the endorsement on her social media accounts. Asked about that, Ross replied that the Britt campaign has been airing an ad on television and running online spots promoting Trump’s endorsement.

Brooks, meanwhile, is casting himself as the only authentic MAGA candidate in the race. “Don’t send us weak sauce,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), another anti-establishment Republican, urged a crowd of about 100 people Friday afternoon as he joined Brooks in Huntsville. “Don’t send us milquetoast moderates. Don’t send us weak-kneed Republicans, send us a real conservative!”

The crowd booed as he denounced “RINOs” in Congress who backed Britt and laughed as he noted that 81-year-old Anthony S. Fauci, the Biden medical adviser reviled on the right, had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Spencer Kimball, who has led polling on the race since March, said Brooks supporters have increasingly said that Trump’s picks do not make a difference to them. “They just kind of push it off,” the associate professor at Emerson College said, describing “a lot of cognitive dissonance among the voters.”

Jerry Duke, 66, declined to criticize Trump on Friday, even as he said he was “disappointed” in the former president’s handling of the endorsement.

“MAGA is not owned by Trump,” he said at Brooks’s event.

Trump has said he broke with Brooks over the congressman’s comments at a rally last August in Cullman, Ala., where Brooks got booed for trying to look beyond election grievances. “There are some people who are despondent about the voter fraud election theft of 2020,” he said. “Folks, put that behind you.”

The crowd roared its displeasure.

Seven months later, in March, Trump blasted those rally comments as he rescinded his endorsement and called Brooks “woke.” Brooks, in response, said Trump had asked him to try to “rescind” the 2020 vote, install Trump in the White House and “hold a new special election.” Even Brooks — who spoke at a rally that preceded the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6, 2021 — rejected that as overreach.

“As a lawyer, I’ve repeatedly advised President Trump that January 6 was the final election contest verdict and neither the U.S. Constitution nor the U.S. Code permit what President Trump asks,” Brooks said in a statement at the time. “Period.”

Brooks spent the next two months seeking to excuse Trump’s decision-making, accusing McConnell of manipulating the former president and publicly lobbying Trump to reconsider. Just this month, Brooks theorized that Trump was like a football coach, all-knowing and delivering “the kick in the pants we needed.”

Then came Trump’s endorsement of Britt — the candidate he once belittled as “assistant” to “the RINO Senator from Alabama, close friend of Old Crow Mitch McConnell, Richard C. Shelby.” Brooks unloaded on Trump to columnist Kyle Whitmire, saying the former president “abandoned the conservative movement and the MAGA agenda in order to try to improve the reputation of his brand.”

Some voters tiptoed when asked about Brooks’s newly personal knock on Trump — that he lacks any loyalty.

“You could associate that with a conclusion with his actions,” said Henderson, the voter unsure about whether Trump should run in 2024.

But lifelong Republican Kristee Rutland, 54, was happy to see Brooks call Trump faithless. “I’m just glad somebody said it out loud,” the Huntsville resident and small-business owner said.

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