MOBILE, Alabama — If you liked the three-way drama of the Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania this week, you’ll love the similar drama in Tuesday's GOP Senate primary in Alabama.
This is fitting, considering famous Democratic consultant James Carville’s aphorism about the Keystone State’s political culture that “Pennsylvania is Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east, with Alabama in between.”
As in Pennsylvania’s middle territory, Alabama’s pitched battle has featured wild polling swings amid dramatic interventions by former President Donald Trump. The race began last summer with firebrand Rep. Mo Brooks enjoying Trump’s endorsement and a greater than 50-percentage-point lead over Katie Britt, the former president of the Business Council of Alabama and the former chief of staff for retiring Sen. Richard Shelby. In October, as the energetic Britt pulled within polling range of a strangely lethargic Brooks, defense contractor and former Army pilot Mike Durant entered the race. Durant, who was otherwise unknown in Alabama, barely familiar even to Republicans in his Huntsville, Alabama, community, had millions of dollars of his own money to spend, and a great backstory of 11 days of captivity in Somalia portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down.
On March 23, Trump unendorsed the floundering Brooks, who fell to a low of 12% in one poll. Britt took a small lead, but then she herself was overtaken by Durant, who surged on the strength of a series of superb TV and radio ads, even though he rarely could be found on the campaign hustings.
But Durant quite conspicuously dodged debates, even one to be sponsored by the notably conservative state Republican Party itself, and outside groups pummeled him in mass mailers making him sound like a gun-controlling interloper more interested in his fancy house in Colorado than in Alabama. The flak put his campaign into a nosedive.
By early May, Britt led in every public poll, by as much as 11 points — although usually closer to 8. Then Durant and Brooks began pummeling her in a withering barrage of ads, with Durant taking a cheap shot at her pro-life bona fides by saying that “she let abortion pills be supplied to teenagers.” This is ludicrous nonsense on multiple levels. The reference was to Britt’s alleged failure, as student government president at the University of Alabama way back in 2003, to pretend to veto a completely nonbinding resolution by the student senate. The resolution asked the university to make the so-called “Morning After pill” (a pre-ovum-implantation contraceptive, not to be confused with the RU-486 “abortion pill") available to students. The SGA president had no veto power over nonbinding resolutions and would have been unanimously overridden even if she had. Her anti-abortion advocacy since then has been entirely unquestioned.
Although Trump was among many (including me, embarrassingly) who had given Brooks up for dead, Brooks began a stunning surge of his own, using $2 million his campaign had carefully hoarded for a late rush. He was immensely helped in this pro-Trump state, not hurt, by the news that Congress’s committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot had subpoenaed him, a step seen by many here as political persecution. He also was helped by vast spending on his behalf by the controversial Club for Growth PAC, which has become a bitter enemy of Trump.
Every public poll in the past 10 days has shown Brooks rising again, with the latest one showing him in a strong second, ahead of Durant and just 2 points behind Britt. With five days remaining in the race, it is anybody’s guess which two of these three will make a runoff primary set for June 21. (Unlike in Pennsylvania, where a mere plurality of votes is needed for the nomination, Alabama requires a two-person runoff if no candidate receives 50% of the vote.)
Britt’s support levels have been the most stable and she has the most extensively visible organizational “ground game.” Most analysts think she will secure at least one of the two runoff spots. Nevertheless, as volatile as this race has been, nothing is assured — except that whoever finally emerges with the Republican nomination is all but guaranteed to defeat a hapless Democrat in the fall.
Anyway, pick your favorite cliche of the “barn-burner” or “humdinger” variety, and use it liberally to describe the state of this race not just on Tuesday, but through June 21. No matter what the attack ads say, that will be the only thing “liberal” about this campaign or its candidates.