I first encountered now-Rep. Mo Brooks, the congressman for Alabama’s fifth congressional district, in 2006, at a meeting of the University of South Alabama College Republicans. Back then, he was a commissioner for Madison County and a candidate for lieutenant governor.
At the time, Brooks was running against one of his current opponents for the U.S. Senate, Luther Strange, and was regarded as a long-shot candidate. That year would not be a good year for the Republican Party. President George W. Bush was on the ropes with a very unpopular war in Iraq and a response to Hurricane Katrina that left much to be desired.
Nonetheless, with the aid of some hard work by the then-University of South Alabama College Republican president Jennifer Edwards, Brooks drew a sizeable audience of both Republican and Democratic students.
His message at the time was anti-Montgomery, one that is a can’t-miss for non-incumbent candidates running for state office. That day, he also offered an idealistic, limited government approach to policy, similar to libertarian-leaning candidates. He argued that everyone’s life would improve if the role of government shrank.
Brooks wooed the bipartisan audience with his message. The next day, “Brooks for Lieutenant Governor” popped up all around campus. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, Brooks was only able to muster 15 percent of the vote statewide. Strange would win the nomination but lose to Jim Folsom, Jr. in the general election.
Eleven years later, Brooks has risen from that paltry initial showing in a statewide contest. He was elected to Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010 and appears to be headed on a collision course with Strange once again.
The race has 10 declared candidates. Other than Brooks and incumbent Sen. Luther Strange there are a couple of other familiar names, including perennial candidate former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and State Sen. Trip Pittman.
In all likelihood, we will see a Big Luther-Mo showdown in the runoff if neither can get to 50 percent in the primary scheduled for August.
Early on, it appeared that unseating Strange might be very difficult. He is the incumbent. He has in previous elections for office had the backing of Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions. He knows his way around Washington, D.C., given his years as a lobbyist before coming back home to Alabama to work as a lawyer for a Birmingham firm.
Strange’s background suggests he will be able to out-fundraise his competitors to the point that Alabamians may not realize anyone else is running.
The unforeseeable happened, however. Last month, an apparently deranged man with warped anti-Republican political views shot House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) and others at the Republican congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, Brooks, who was practicing with the team, immediately went into hero mode and used his belt as a tourniquet on one of the victims.
For the next two weeks, numerous national media outlets interviewed Brooks and asked him to relive that tragic incident.
All of a sudden, Brooks became a national figure known for acting under duress to administer potentially life-saving first aid. Then, the backdrop of any back-and-forth differences Brooks and Strange had on policy seemed insignificant, at least for the moment. Several weeks later, Strange still has the advantage, to be sure, but Brooks might be closer to unseating him than many realize.
Brooks and Strange are two very different candidates, and Alabamians will have to decide what they would prefer representing them in the U.S. Senate.
Strange has the backing of many of the establishment organizations in Washington, D.C. – and that can be a good thing. If voters want someone that will play ball with the GOP leadership and legislate more in the mold of Richard Shelby, Strange is not a bad choice. He seems to be the type that will go along to get along and, if he is in the Senate long enough, would work his way up the ladder to hold important committee positions.
If you believe the state should get more help from the federal government in fulfilling its wish list of projects — a new Mobile River bridge, securing funding for defense contracts and military installations, a better chance in the perpetual fight against the bureaucracy over red snapper season or an advantage in the never-ending fight Alabama and Florida have against the state of Georgia over the Chattahoochee River, Strange might be the better choice.
If your choice is not someone willing to completely toe the party line, the Brooks is likely your guy. Brooks is probably closer to Sessions than Shelby in his legislative philosophy. He likely will not go the route of a Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, two senators who have shown a willingness to obstruct their own party’s leadership whenever they see fit.
Based on his House record, Brooks has shown that he is willing to do what it takes to bring some bacon home back to his congressional district with the presence of NASA, Redstone Arsenal and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
His latest campaign ad, however, does show that he is not ruling out bucking GOP leadership if necessary. In it, Brooks threatens to filibuster on the Senate floor (by reading the King James Version of the Holy Bible, if necessary) should the upcoming spending bill fail to fund President Donald Trump’s promised border wall.
As is likely to happen, Alabamians will face a crossroads in choosing between Strange or Brooks. (Sorry Democrats, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones will likely win the Democratic nod for the Senate seat, but a Democrat being elected in a statewide election in Alabama is a fantasy for the time being.)
Keep in mind, the day of a runoff, the last Tuesday in September, will fall in the middle of football season (Alabama hosts Ole Miss and Auburn hosts Mississippi State that next Saturday in case you’re wondering).
Both have a path to the GOP nomination and ultimately to the U.S. Senate. But in what will likely be a low-turnout event — a GOP primary runoff in an off-election year — the victor will likely be the one who can generate the most enthusiasm and motivate people to vote.
Will voters be more enthusiastic for the establishment-approved Luther Strange who likely will work as a creature of Washington to fulfill Alabama’s interests, or will it be Mo Brooks, a candidate who has at least voiced a willingness to mix it up if necessary?