Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) never has won a federal election and holds his seat thanks to an appointment by a disgraced former governor, yet his GOP colleagues in the Senate are working overtime to build a firewall for him.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, has lined up millions of dollars on behalf of Strange for an August primary in a special election for the seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The group also has threatened to blackball consultants who work for rival campaigns.
"The Washington swamp critters will be behind the placeholder candidate in a large way."
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) is not playing ball, though.
"The Washington swamp critters will be behind the placeholder candidate in a large way," said Brooks, who announced his Senate candidacy this week. "A lot of us went to Washington to drain the swamp. Now, you're seeing the swamp fight back."
Strange, who was Alabama's attorney general until his appointment to the Senate in February, touted his own swamp-draining experience.
"I have a lot of faith in Alabama voters to make up their own minds before they head to the polls, which is why I'm confident that when they compare my proven record of draining the swamp in Montgomery and fighting [former President Barack] Obama's radical agenda, they'll choose me to continue Jeff Sessions' legacy and fight alongside President Trump in Washington," he said in a prepared statement.
Strange's opponents note that he recused himself from the Hubbard case and argue that he is trying to have it both ways. They also have made hay over the man who appointed him -- Robert Bentley, who resigned amid a sex scandal and allegations of abusing his office.
Republican Field Takes Shape In addition to Brooks, declared Republican candidates include a state representative, a Christian activist, a businessman and the best-known of the bunch, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.
Twice, Moore won election as chief justice only to be removed from office for ethics violations. The first time, he refused a federal judge's order to remove a Ten Commandments monument that he had installed in the Alabama judicial building. The second time came in response to instructions Moore gave probate judges to follow state law banning same-sex marriage after a federal judge had declared it unconstitutional.
Although controversial, Moore is a folk hero among religious conservatives.
"They'll do anything to get their candidate to win," said Moore's spokesman, Dean Young of the national Republicans support for Strange. "That's just what they do. Personally, I think it's going to backfire on them."
Officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee did not return calls seeking comment. But they have been quite open about heir intention of clearing the field.
"We have made it very clear from the beginning that Sen. Luther Strange would be treated as an incumbent," spokeswoman Katie Martin told Politico. "It has also been a clear policy that we will not use vendors who work against our incumbents."
That affects all potential challengers and is, perhaps, one reason why the field of announced candidates remains smaller than most observers initially expected. But Brooks, as a U.S. representative, arguably has more to lose. The state's other five representatives have opted not to run.
Brooks said consultants have quit two other campaigns. Young confirmed that Moore's was one of those campaigns.
"We had a consulting firm that was involved in getting us ready for the campaign launch, which was on Wednesday the 26th [of April]. And on the 27th, the Establishment put out its statement," he said. "And then on the 29th, the consulting firm walked off ... We literally had to redo the website and everything."
Brooks said the National Republican Senatorial Committee is wasting money in a deep red state that has little chance of flipping to the Democrats. That money would be better spent warding off Democrats in more competitive states, he said.
"It's crazy," Brooks said. "We're talking about someone who's never been elected and is a placeholder."
Sending a Message to Would-Be Challengers A Republican strategist, who asked not to be identified, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a desire to protect his members and discourage primary challenges in other states.
"This doesn't have to do with Luther as much as it has to do with other 50 senators in the majority," he said. "McConnell has to send a message to his members, 'I got your back.'"
Irritating the Republican Establishment is nothing new for Brooks. After Republican leaders persuaded then-Rep. Parker Griffith to ditch the Democratic Party for the GOP in 2009, Brooks promptly challenged him in the Republican primary the following year and defeated him. Since joining the House, Brooks has accumulated one of the most conservative voting records in Congress and has been an enthusiastic member of the House Freedom Caucus, which has been a thorn in the side of House Republican leaders.
If Brooks won, he would become the first Freedom Caucus alum to join the Senate. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has publicly expressed an affinity for the caucus. The beginning of a Senate Freedom Caucus?
"I sure hope so," he said. "The Senate needs to show more backbone on major policy issues than it has."
Brooks said he would push for an aggressive conservative agenda. He also said he supports further curtailing the filibuster rule, and perhaps eliminating it, altogether. The rule requiring 60 votes have been eliminated for all appointments. Brooks said a simple majority should be required at least for must-pass spending bills to prevent a minority from holding the country hostage.
Brooks said he is inclined to remove the filibuster obstacle for regular legislation. Democrats occasionally have had filibuster-proof majorities but the Republicans have not.
"The socialists make gains that Republicans can never reverse," he said. "That's the history of it."