U.S. Sen. Luther Strange is accusing Rep. Mo Brooks of aligning himself with Tuscaloosa developer and ardent Donald Trump critic Stan Pate in the latest campaign tactic to paint the Huntsville congressman as an unwavering “Never-Trumper.”
Strange’s campaign, in a news release issued late Saturday, said Pate donated more than $8,000 to Brooks’ Senate campaign before announcing the formation of a political action committee last month aimed at defeating Strange, the sitting Republican senator.
Brooks, in a response Monday, said he accepts “support from all aspects of the Republican Party.” He also predicted that the Pate accusations won’t be the last of Strange’s well-funded campaign efforts to link Brooks with Trump opponents.
But will a barrage of paid media advertising, which is being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s super PAC, stick? At least one long-time Alabama political observer believes Brooks should be concerned.
“I think in any political campaign, and this is tried and true in history, if my megaphone is big enough, I can convince a lot of voters that water runs uphill and the Pope is Jewish,” said Jess Brown, a retired political science professor from Athens State University. “For all of these campaigns, it’s money, message and manpower. You need the money for the message. In this particular special election, Big Luther has D.C. money.”
Brooks agreed that he is “absolutely” concerned about a barrage of TV and radio commercial ads, aimed at him by pro-Strange PAC’s, having a negative effect.
But Brooks said he isn’t backing away from support from a host of Republicans. He cited his endorsements from conservative media personalities such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham – both on the pro-Trump side – as evidence that Strange’s campaign is pushing “negative distortions.”
“I’ve gotten support from people who are for Trump in the primary and those who weren’t for Trump in the primary,” said Brooks, who called himself the “dean of the Republican Party in Alabama.”
“I have successfully carried the Republican Party banner, fighting for our beliefs more than any other current Alabama Republican office holder,” Brooks added. “I welcome support of all Republicans of all stripes as we try to prevent Alabama swamp in the form of decades-long lobbyist Luther Strange buying a Senate seat from the people of the state of Alabama.”
Strange’s camp is linking Brooks to Pate, and through that association, is calling the congressman an opponent of Trump, who remains considerably popular in Alabama among conservative voters.
Alabama Republican voters, backed by a large conservative and evangelical base, carry huge sway in state elections. No Democrat has won a statewide race in over a decade.
Trump, overall among Republicans and conservatives nationally, enjoys strong support. According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, the president has 90 percent support among people identifying themselves as conservative Republicans, and registers 82 percent approval from Republicans.
At the same time, Trump’s overall approval rating is floundering with 36 percent of the overall respondents in that same poll approving of the president’s job performance. Of the polls 1,001 respondents, 35 percent were Democrat, 35 percent independent and 23 percent Republican.
“Obviously, the president’s political health in Alabama is better than his political health nationwide,” said Brown. “This president still enjoys a healthy dose of support among Alabama Republicans.”
Brooks, in recent weeks, has campaigned on supporting Trump and has pledged to back the president’s U.S.-Mexico border wall by reading the King James Version of the Bible as a filibuster tactic to get its funding through the Senate.
But Strange has been the only Senate candidate who has been running TV spots less than one month before the Aug. 15 primary.
The latest ads question Brooks’ allegiance to Trump.
“The people and groups that Congressman Brooks continues to surround himself clearly show that Congressman Brooks’ remains dedicated to the Never-Trump Movement,” said Michael Joffrion, Strange’s campaign manager said in a statement. “Congressman Brooks should explain to voters why he continues to accept support of those who worked so vigorously against President Trump.”
Strange’s inclusion of Pate into the campaign takes aim at a developer who, in late June, registered the Swamp Drainers Foundation PAC with the Federal Election Commission to fund an advertising and media campaign against the senator.
Pate has funded campaign attacks on politicians before – most notably Trump. He paid for a series of anti-Trump messages written in the sky above the 2016 Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif., as well as banners at the 2016 versions of the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl.
One of the sky writings called Trump “disgusting” and another said “Anybody but Trump.” Pate could not be reached for comment Monday.
Brooks endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s presidential primary. He called then-candidate Trump a “serial adulterer” in March 2016, and accused the future president of being a “flip-flopper” on public policy.
The Strange-Brooks campaign feud over Trump included other participants last week. Perry Hooper Jr. of Montgomery, who campaigned for Trump and supports Strange, said Brooks should publicly apologize for the comments he made last year.
State Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, who also campaigned for Trump, said it was Brooks who helped the Trump campaign last year while Strange did not.
Brown, the retired Athens State University professor, said he believes that Strange’s campaign message may resonate with voters south of Birmingham. But in the northern part of the state, including the Tennessee Valley area where Brooks calls home, the campaign tactic won’t stick.
“Frankly, these ads being run north of Cullman are a waste of dark money spent by the Senate Leadership PAC,” said Brown, referring to the PAC overseen by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which has reserved around $2.4 million to pay for TV ads in support of Strange’s Senate bid.
“But when you get to Birmingham south, I think it becomes a different story,” Brown said. “People know far less about Congressman Brooks and they won’t delve into the timing of when he made his comments on the president.”
Added Brooks: “The voters in North Alabama know that is absurd and just plain deceptive. Luther Strange’s forces are hoping that voters in other parts of the state will fall for Luther Strange’s deception.”
William Stewart, a professor emeritus of political sciences at the University of Alabama, said he doesn’t anticipate Alabama voters “being strongly impressed” by Strange’s “anti-Brooks propaganda” or the inclusion of Pate in the ads.
“Stan Pate has supported candidates all across the political spectrum for many years,” said Stewart. “I believe that people are going to stick with their candidates no matter what mud (is tossed before the primary).”
But Brown said that turnout on Aug. 15 is likely to play a role. A low turnout primary, he said, will make Strange’s TV and radio spots become “less valuable.”
Brown said he anticipates turnout to be at least half of the 850,000 Alabama Republicans who voted in the 2016 GOP presidential primary last year.
He said that bodes well for former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, whose devoted base will result in “90,000 to 120,000 votes.”
For Brooks to make a Sept. 26 runoff, Brown said, he will need “slightly more than 25 percent of the vote” outside his Huntsville-based district.
“If turnout drops appreciably … and today, I don’t think the average voter in Alabama is thrilled about this election … then I don’t think the money spent by the Strange campaign will have near as an impact,” Brown said. “And Roy Moore will be in the runoff.”