The two candidates now in a runoff for the Alabama GOP primary for a Senate seat present themselves as scrappy conservatives with Trumpian bona-fides. Both have spent the last months campaigning on gun rights, abortion, immigration, and “election fraud.” To voters basing their decisions on campaign ads, it could be hard to tell any major difference between them, other than slight differences in packaging.
But there are real stakes to this choice for voters in the state, and their decision will determine whether or not Alabama will soften the upcoming blow to its political power—or trade its future influence for another fighter in the culture wars.
Here’s why: Alabama’s two sitting senators are vastly different kinds of politicians. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach elected in 2020, branded himself as an “outsider.” He famously said the three branches of government were “the House, the Senate, and the executive,” and he focuses his attention on simply opposing Democrats.
Sen. Richard Shelby, on the other hand, has held office for 35 years. As the recent chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Shelby has allocated enormous amounts of federal funds for his state, directing billions in defense spending to the aerospace-focused town of Huntsville and the port of Mobile. When he leaves office in January, the state will lose its most skilled and well-connected advocate.
Neither candidate will immediately have Shelby’s level of influence, but it matters if they want to try to actually advocate for their state’s interests. There is one candidate who has signaled that he, like Tuberville, will refuse to play the game—and there is one candidate who has been groomed to be as Shelby-like as is possible in this current political climate.
Katie Britt, the Shelby protege, is on paper a perfect traditional, business-minded Republican. Britt, only 40 years old, has been gunning for political office her whole life. At the University of Alabama, Britt was president of the Student Government Association. She interned for Shelby, became a lawyer, worked for the University of Alabama, and then finally ended up as Shelby’s chief of staff in 2016. Afterwards, she worked as the president of an Alabama business lobby. As if her career credentials weren’t enough, Britt is even married to a former Alabama football captain, a fact she highlights in campaign ads. (“People in Alabama know the names of some fairly obscure players,” said Stephen Borrelli, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama. “For some 15 or 20 percent of voters, I think that really matters.”)
“I’ve watched Katie Britt grow up,” said Steve Flowers, a longtime syndicated political columnist in Alabama. “She’s had ‘governor’ or ‘senator’ written on her since she was a little girl.”
Shelby and the establishment Republicans have dubbed Britt their favored successor, pouring millions into her campaign. And yet she’s been surprisingly successful at avoiding the “establishment candidate” label, potentially thanks to her youth and charisma. Throughout the campaign, Britt touted her accomplishments with Shelby, but she also tried to portray herself as Trumpy enough—railing against socialism and urging the building of a border wall. In her campaign announcement, she bragged about bringing “opportunity” to the state and helping confirm conservative justices but also talked about “election security” and invoked an “Alabama first” message.
She also ran a more traditional campaign, building a grassroots organization and getting endorsements from legislators throughout the state. She talked about the issues of the day and what she would do as a senator.
Britt has declined to directly answer whether she would have voted to certify the 2020 election results, instead saying that she believed there was “fraud” and calling for an audit of the election. (That stance made her the most restrained of the candidates). And while she promoted an anti-Fauci COVID conspiracy theory, she hasn’t made these kinds of false claims the focal point of her campaign. She shrugged off attempts to attack her for her husband liking mild anti-Trump tweets and the fact that, as student government president, she didn’t veto a resolution supporting the morning-after pill (a power she likely didn’t have). And she has held on to her image as a classically Southern, faith-driven candidate.
“She’s presenting the most authentically Christian persona,” Borrelli said. “So Katie is probably winning people for whom that is a big thing. She’s managed to get the less Trumpy evangelical voters in her corner.”
But it’s not clear that that’s enough for Britt. When she entered the race, there was already another established candidate with powerful connections—including, crucially, Donald Trump.
Rep. Mo Brooks, who has served in the House since 2011, made his first run for the Senate in 2017, coming in third in the primary behind the Trump-endorsed Luther Strange and the ultimate nominee, Roy Moore. Despite his firebrand persona (he claimed, for example, that the Democratic Party was provoking a “war on whites”), his poor performance was likely the result of his open criticism of Trump’s “serial adultery” and “gutter-mouth tendencies” during the 2016 presidential election. Brooks learned his lesson, staking his political career on becoming the leader of Trump’s campaign to overturn the 2020 election, and the first to come out against the election certification. On the morning of the Capitol insurrection, in a speech he gave at the White House’s request while wearing body armor, he told a crowd, “today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”
The efforts paid off: Trump endorsed Brooks in April 2021. And Brooks, branding himself as “MAGA Mo,” centered his campaign around Trump’s endorsement. Trump called Britt “certainly not what our country needs,” and Britt shot back by saying she “wouldn’t run to somebody else for cover and have someone else fight for me.” It seemed that the election would come down to the Trump candidate versus the defiant establishment moderate.
But Brooks had his weaknesses. His strident right-wing persona has translated into a position in which he places national politics—and cable news appearances—above state matters.
“Mo will tell you he doesn’t want to be effective,” Flowers said. “He doesn’t care if there are defense dollars coming to Huntsville—he’ll vote against it. He’ll vote against agriculture. Because he wants less government.”
And, according to Borrelli, Brooks likely overestimated the effect election fraud talk would have on the electorate. Borrelli theorized that because the election is occurring outside a presidential election year, and because the votes in Alabama were never contested, voters didn’t get fired up about it in the same way they would have in a state like Georgia.
So even with Trump’s endorsement, Brooks, not known to be the most charismatic candidate in the first place, was vulnerable.
That vulnerability was exploited by the third candidate in the race. Mike Durant remains something of a mystery to observers in the state—even after he conceded Tuesday night, in the first round of the primary. He refused to debate Britt and Brooks on policy matters. What Durant played up instead was his background in the Army: In 1993, in the Battle of Mogadishu, Durant piloted a helicopter that was shot down in Somalia. He was held hostage for 11 days; his story was included in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down. After his military career, he settled in Alabama, published a book about his exploits, started an engineering services company, and then, in October 2021, launched his campaign.
As a late entry, Durant branded himself as the most Trumpian candidate, and the true outsider in the race—a label that genuinely fit him. He rose in the polls, and Brooks slipped. Brooks then learned a hard lesson about Trump’s loyalty: Even committing potential crimes for him does not guarantee your favor with a man who hates being associated with losers.
In March, after Brooks was booed at a rally for telling the crowd to put the 2020 election behind them and “look forward,” Trump announced that he was withdrawing his endorsement over Brooks going “woke.” In reality, Trump had already complained that Brooks’ performance was “disappointing,” but the move suddenly opened the field up to a new contest for Trump’s favor. Trump hinted that he would soon endorse someone else, and Durant and Britt scrambled to prove just how much they had the president’s back. In the immediate aftermath, Durant shot to the front of the pack.
But no endorsement came. The campaigns returned to normal Republican matters—guns and abortion and transgender athletes and immigration—and the Trump factor waned.
As did Durant’s campaign. According to Ryan Williamson, a political science professor at Auburn University, it seemed the shine of the new candidate wore off, particularly as both Brooks and Britt began directing their attacks at the newcomer. His background raised some questions. It turned out that a political action committee that had thrown more than $3 million behind Durant’s campaign was in turn funded by a super PAC promoting moderate candidates, according to the Alabama Political Reporter. The PAC that supported him also received $50,000 from the trust of two major Democrat donors. Durant said he didn’t understand why the PAC supported his campaign, but his opponents pointed to the funding to accuse him of being a secret anti-Trump moderate. Trump himself reportedly referred to Durant as the “John McCain candidate.” Other critics speculated that he was even a plant to disrupt the Republican primary. And Durant’s candidacy took another hit when a nightmarish family story re-emerged.
Durant’s downturn left the race back close to where it started. Despite Brooks’ rebuke from Trump (as well his current legal issues over his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection), he regained a huge amount of lost ground. (An NRA endorsement in early May likely helped.) Britt, with the support of Shelby and the Republican party, is winning the money game and came out ahead in the first round of the primary. As the final votes are being tallied, she is projected to have won nearly 45 percent of the vote on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, no one secured more than 50 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff between Britt and Brooks, set to take place June 21.
In a two-person campaign, dynamics will be different. Durant’s voters could go to the similarly incendiary Brooks, for example—or they could stay home, or even go with Britt if it looks like she’s most popular. Britt could subtly court Democrats looking for the lesser of two evils. Trump could endorse someone—who knows?
The ultimate question is whether voters choose a senator who can advocate for their state in Congress, or a senator who will fight for their political party in national-level brawls. Neither candidate will be a powerful representative for the state immediately. Even Britt, who wants to fill that role, will need a couple terms to gain seats on key committees. But she could build a Shelby-like profile over time.
Still, it’s not clear how much voters are aware of—or care about—that question. Experts say voters do not understand just how much Shelby did for them. “The average man and woman in the street probably doesn’t care a lot about it,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Whether Shelby, an old-school Southern Republican deeply popular among the Alabama elite, will bolster or hamper Britt’s chances is, at this point, still a mystery. As Borrelli noted, Shelby’s popularity was essentially untested in the modern context because he never faced a real challenger in the Trump era. The uncertainty about whether Britt’s old-fashioned politics will trip her up has pushed her to try to come off as her own, more MAGA-adjacent candidate, and not just a Shelby acolyte.
According to Williamson, because politics are increasingly nationalized, voters often care more about victories for their party, rather than whether a candidate best represents them, even when it comes to self-interested practicalities. Britt, he noted, has caught onto this and has been trying to match Brooks’ partisan fury. But the old-fashioned Republican in her can’t resist the policy platforms, or the local issues.
“There may be a number of voters who base their decision on who they think will be the best at performing the job of a senator, especially in opposition to a President Biden,” he said. “So it’ll be interesting to see if that approach serves her well or backfires.”
Update, May 25, 2022: This post has been updated following the results of Tuesday’s primary.
Correction, May 24, 2022, at 11:40 a.m.: This post incorrectly described Katie Britt’s husband’s activity on Twitter as “anti-Trump tweets,” when they were in fact likes of anti-Trump tweets.