How Katie Britt used political prudence to trounce Mo Brooks in Alabama

At a meeting of Republicans in Alabama last year, Katie Britt and her husband strategically placed themselves at the end of a receiving line to shake hands with former President Donald J. Trump.

Britt, an attorney and former chief of staff to Sen. Richard Shelby, had recently announced her campaign to fill the seat vacated by her former boss, who is retiring. Trump had already supported his opponent, Representative Mo Brooks — but the couple hoped to sow doubt in Mr. Trump’s mind, according to four people familiar with the meeting.

As the couple greeted Mr. Trump, Britt’s husband, Wesley Britt — a burly retired N.F.L. lineman — mentioned to the former president that he had once played for the New England Patriots. “The only time you’ve met me, I think I was wrapped in a towel in the Patriots’ locker room,” Britt reportedly told Trump, who found it amusing and replied that Robert K. Kraft, the team’s billionaire owner, “likes me.”

From then on, Britt positioned herself as a formidable competitor with savvy political skills, persistently trying to convince Mr. Trump that she deserved his approval instead.

In March, Trump gave Britt half of what she wanted and withdrew her endorsement of Brooks — at the time far behind in the polls — because, he said, the far-right congressman had gone “woke.” So this month, with Ms Britt clearly on her way to victory, the former president supported her, apparently in an attempt to dampen her approval record.

Ten months after her brief exchange of words with Trump last August, Britt claimed victory in the Republican primary for Alabama’s open Senate seat tuesday, putting a lid on a hard-won campaign for her party’s nomination against Brooks. In a state with a deep-seated Conservative bent, she is anything but certain to win in November’s general election.

Britt is also one step closer to making history as the first woman in Alabama to be elected to the Senate. Her Democratic opponent is a pastor, Will Boyd, who has run unsuccessfully for the Senate, House of Representatives and lieutenant governor.

Shortly after the polls closed Tuesday, Mr. Shelby, who has known Ms. Britt since the days she was an intern in his office, said he was very fond of her.

“She’s an excellent person — she has the brain, the drive and the compassion,” he said.

Mrs Britt, 40, is seen as part of a younger generation of pro-Trump Republicans, and her husband’s teasing of Mr. Trump was viewed by those familiar with the meeting as a wise move that proved crucial to her nomination.

Ms. Britt went into the primary with scant name recognition and long odds against Mr. Brooks, who boasted more than a decade of experience in the House of Representatives and gained Mr. Trump’s backing after he raised the crowd at the former president’s rally before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

But Trump withdrew his support for Brooks in March as Brooks struggled to gain traction during an avalanche of attack ads and criticism of his decision to urge an audience at a Trump rally to leave the 2020 election. “Katie Britt, on the other hand, is a fearless America First Warrior,” Trump said in a statement this month when backing Ms. Britt.

That move didn’t completely wipe out Brooks, who still managed to squeeze in second place in Alabama’s May 24 primary, getting 29 percent of the vote. Britt pulled in 45 percent, which was less than the majority that would have avoided a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

Ms. Britt shaped herself as an “Alabama First” candidate, played out Mr. Trump’s “America First” presidential campaign slogan, and centered her race on her Christian faith, tough border enforcement policies, and ties to business.

As an aide to Mr. Shelby, one of the Senate’s most senior members, she worked on some of his signature issues, including a comprehensive Republican package of tax cuts in 2017, confirmation of conservative justices and pressure for a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She most recently served as head of the Business Council of Alabama, a powerful lobbying group, and led a “Keep Alabama Open” campaign in November 2020 against coronavirus pandemic restrictions requiring non-essential businesses to close or restrict services. She also opened the council’s resources, typically reserved for paying members, to all small businesses in the midst of the health crisis.

In terms of politics, Mrs. Britt and Mr.BRooks ideological differences: He represented a more aggressive brand of arch-conservatism as a foUnding member of the Freedom Caucus, while Ms. Britt, like Mr. Shelby, was seen as more focused on economic development. But in oratorical style, she echoed the hard-right talking points that have become common messages in the Republican Party.

“When I look at what’s happening in Washington, I don’t recognize our country,” Britt said in a video in which she introduced herself to voters. “The left attacks our religious freedom and advances a socialist agenda. In Joe Biden’s America, people can raise more money when they stay home than they can earn on the job.”

The campaigners and supporters of Mrs. Britt, Mr. Brooks and a third top contender in the race, Mike Durant, a former Army pilot, spent millions of dollars on negative ads.

Brooks and his supporters tried to paint Ms. Britt as a lobbyist and a RINO — a favored insult used by Trump supporters for politicians they believe are Republicans in name only.

She shot back with attacks that portrayed Mr. Brooks as a career politician. It also helped that Brooks had a bad showing at Trump’s Alabama rally last August, just after Ms. Britt began her quiet campaign to swing the former president to her cause. What started as an enthusiastic response to Mr. Brooks that night turned into booing as he urged those in the audience to put the 2020 presidential election behind him and focus on 2022 and 2024.

Trump called him back on stage for another performance, calling him “a fearless warrior for your sacred right to vote.”

Later, when the former president took back his endorsement of Brooks, he said the congressman had made a “terrible mistake” in his comments at the fateful rally.

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