In private, some House Republicans advocated booting Brooks from his committee assignments, aghast at such inflammatory rhetoric to a crowd that later ransacked the Capitol, terrorized police officers, vandalized the halls of democracy and left death and destruction in its wake, lawmakers told CNN.
“What shocked me at the time was the number of my own colleagues that had never heard the remarks. And I played it for them,” Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, a member of the House GOP group that was weighing stripping Brooks of his committee assignments, recalled on Friday. “There were jaws dropping.”
Asked if he thinks that Brooks incited the rioters, Womack told CNN, “I’m not going to get into that. He offended me, I can tell you that.”
Ultimately, House Republicans opted not to punish Brooks, who led the quixotic campaign in Congress to try to overturn the votes in some states that Biden won, endearing him to Trump and his closest supporters in the process.
In interviews with an array of Republicans in the state, one thing is clear: the 66-year-old Brooks could easily emerge as the front-runner for the GOP nomination in a state that Trump won by 26 points last fall. And if he gets the coveted Trump endorsement, the icing could be on the cake, potentially paving the way to a primary victory and ensuring the seat stays red, according to multiple senior Republicans.
“I think the person that’s going to win this primary is going to be somebody that is in that Trump-MAGA lane,” said former Alabama GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne, who ran for Senate in 2020. “And so right now, just looking at the field, the two candidates that are the most likely to get in that lane — and be successful — are Mo Brooks and Lynda Blanchard.”
Indeed, Brooks’ top competition for Shelby’s seat may come from Blanchard, the former ambassador to Slovenia, who is less well-known in the state but boasts the ability to self-fund her campaign. She and her husband John donated more than $1.9 million to Trump’s presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020; Lynda was rewarded with the ambassadorship to then-First Lady Melania Trump’s home country.
Randy Evans, a former US ambassador to Luxembourg under Trump who attended Blanchard’s recent fundraiser, said she could appeal to both Republicans who support Trump and those in the business community wary of him.
The former President was “very complimentary” of Blanchard, Evans said, and “not shy at all about showing his appreciation for the good work she’s done,” while being “careful not to step over the line of … getting into the race one way or the other.”
Other potential Senate Republican candidates include Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and Business Council of Alabama CEO Katie Boyd Britt, who served as Shelby’s former chief of staff.
Merrill, who told CNN that he would likely make his decision in April and is seriously considering running for Senate, called Brooks a “very formidable” candidate with an “enthusiastic following.” But he said that the congressman is a “polarizing figure.”
Yet Merrill also made clear whose side he’s on, declining to say if Trump was responsible for the attack on the Capitol, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did bluntly last month.
“I don’t remember President Trump advocating riotous behavior or advocating that there be an overthrow of the government,” Merrill said, defending the former President.
Trump undecided about engaging in Alabama
There’s a reason why Republicans in the state are aligning with Trump.
“Whoever gets the Trump endorsement will likely win,” said one veteran Republican official in Alabama, who asked for anonymity to talk candidly.
Brooks told CNN that he had spoken to Trump by phone before his Monday announcement but declined to divulge details.
When asked if Trump would back his Senate run, Brooks said, “I think that’s for him to announce at the appropriate time.”
Whether Trump gets involved remains an open question and one that Senate GOP leaders are eager to avoid. A Trump adviser told CNN that there’s been “no decision yet” on whether the former President will endorse in the race.
“Brooks has been a strong ally of the President’s,” the adviser added.
While whoever wins the primary would still be a favorite to win in the red state, top Republicans are warily assessing Brooks’ candidacy as GOP leaders are keenly aware that divisive intra-party fights across the country are among the chief impediments to taking back the Senate, currently under Democratic control with a 50-50 split.
Last week, Sen. Rick Scott, the Florida Republican who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, made a trek to Mar-a-Lago and pitched Trump to back whichever Senate candidates emerge from contested primaries — and not engage in the primaries themselves.
Asked if Trump agreed with his suggestion, Scott added: “He didn’t respond.”
The primary also is of keen interest to McConnell, who has been in a cold war with Trump ever since blaming the former President for inciting the riot, even though he voted to acquit him during his impeachment trial last month. McConnell is quietly moving to recruit candidates whom he believes can win in November 2022 — regardless of their alignment with Trump — and is willing to employ his well-financed super PAC to target Republicans in primaries he believes stand in his way to retaking the majority.
Whether the McConnell-Trump split will play out in Alabama remains to be seen, but it’s a possibility.
But others in the state privately caution that Trump’s backing only goes so far, and look to Shelby, the long-time appropriator, to signal which Republican candidate could continue bringing home the bacon as he’s done for years in funneling billions to his state.
Asked if he would endorse a candidate, Shelby said, “Not now. We’ll see how it goes.”
Some Republicans note that Trump’s 2017 endorsements of Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill then-Sen. Jeff Sessions’ seat, and Judge Roy Moore, who defeated Strange in a primary, were unsuccessful — and Democrat Doug Jones took the seat in a remarkable upset.
But they recognize that while Trump might not be a kingmaker, he can destroy a Republican campaign if he publicly opposes the candidate. In 2020, Trump’s attacks on Sessions, stemming from their fallout over Sessions’ handling of the special counsel probe as attorney general, ended his political career.
Sessions was once beloved in the state; In 2014, he faced no opponent. Six years later, former Auburn football Tommy Tuberville easily defeated Sessions in the primary and Jones in the general election.
Tuberville said he would not endorse a candidate in the primary, and he downplayed Brooks’ role on January 6.
“I didn’t even see his speech,” Tuberville said of Brooks. “I knew he was there.” Told about the fiery rhetoric, Tuberville added, “Yeah, but that’s what political speeches are. I mean they’re all fiery.”
Brooks defiant about his remarks as Dem challenger emerges
In a recent interview, Brooks offered no regrets for his January 6 remarks.
“I did my duty for my country,” Brooks, who won his House seat in the 2010 tea party wave, told CNN defiantly. He then pointed to his full remarks, asking: “Did you see this sentence right before? You guys have done a great disservice to our country by distorting the truth.”
Yet in the sentence before Brooks’ comments where he pushed for supporters to start “kicking ass,” the Republican said: “Regardless of today’s outcome, the 2022 and 2024 elections are right around the corner, and America does not need and cannot stand, cannot tolerate any more weakling, cowering, wimpy Republican congressman and senators who covet the power and prestige the swamp has to offer while groveling at the feet and the knees of the special interest masters.”
After his now-infamous remarks, Brooks then ratcheted the temperature up even more, asking supporters of the then-President: “Now our ancestors sacrificed their blood, their sweat, their tears, their fortunes, and sometimes their lives, to give us their descendants, an America that is the greatest nation in world history. So I have a question for you — are you willing to do the same?”
The business community abhorred the effort to overturn the 2020 election, and was shocked when the pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol to stop the certification of the vote. Corporations suspended their donations to the 147 Republicans who objected. The simmering discontent could leave an opening for a business-friendly candidate.
Tripp Skipper, a GOP political consultant who helped launched Tuberville’s successful 2020 Senate campaign, said that the pro-business wing of the party led by McConnell would treat Brooks “probably a little bit better” than Moore, who lost to Jones after several women accused Moore of sexual misconduct while they were underage.
“His candidacy is not going to resonate in the business community by and large,” said Skipper of Brooks. “There’s going to be a huge push from the McConnell wing of the party to say anybody but Mo. They’re going to treat him probably a little bit better than they treated Roy Moore, but not much.”
But Skipper and other political operatives argued that Brooks is still the frontrunner because of his connection to Trump supporters.
The only Alabama members of Congress who actually voted to certify the election were the man Brooks seeks to replace — Shelby — and Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell.
Sewell told CNN this week that she is considering a run for the seat in the Republican state.
“For me, it’s all about figuring out, can I expand the base?” Sewell said. “I’m in the bluest of districts in the state of Alabama, and so it would require expanding that base but also getting our message out.”
CNN’s Sarah Fortinsky contributed to this report.