Rep. Mo Brooks has courted influential conservative groups more aggressively than Sen. Luther Strange, as the firebrand seeks an advantage in a special Senate election in Alabama.
Under pressure for not embracing President Trump early enough in the 2016 presidential race, which could matter in Trump-happy Alabama, Brooks is countering by seeking the validation of conservative activists. They can make a difference in Republican primaries.
That has included instigating a conversation with Citizens United president David Bossie about supporting his candidacy. Bossie served as Trump's deputy campaign manager and remains a fixture of the president's inner circle.
"I want the support of all wings of conservatism and the Republican Party," Brooks told the Washington Examiner. "I want the always-Trumpers, the never-Trumpers and everybody in between."
However, Strange outflanked Brooks with one marquee group: the National Rifle Association.
The heavyweight Second Amendment advocacy organization, which has close ties to Trump, endorsed the senator in May, despite Brooks' good standing on gun rights. The money and activism that accompany NRA endorsements could pay dividends for Strange on the ground in the Aug. 15 special primary.
"Throughout his career, Sen. Strange has shown tremendous leadership in protecting our fundamental right to self-defense," Chris W. Cox, chairman of the NRA's political arm, said in a statement in late May. "As a champion for gun owners in Alabama and across the country, Sen. Strange is the right person to succeed Jeff Sessions as U.S. senator."
The Strange campaign said it hasn't made any direct endorsement appeals but has been in contact with the major conservative groups that could impact the race.
Key organizations include FreedomWorks Club for Growth, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, Gun Owners of America, and Citizens United. None have endorsed, possibly because they're waiting to see who makes the runoff.
Bossie confirmed in an interview that he has not heard from Strange, but has fielded telephone calls from the other two candidates he likes in the Alabama special: Brooks and state Sen. Trip Pittman. Strange could be missing an opportunity to sway Trump, through Bossie.
"There are three quality candidates," Bossie said. "I am interested in what the president's position is in this race. I haven't seen anything yet."
Strange, 64, then Alabama's attorney general, was appointed to the Senate earlier this year to fill the seat previously held by Jeff Sessions, who retired become U.S. attorney general.
His main competition in the Aug. 15 special primary is Brooks, 63, and Roy Moore, 70, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who has a committed, though limited, conservative following. The top two finishers will proceed to a Sept. 26 runoff.
Strange is backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and most of the Republican establishment. McConnell's super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, and its affiliated political nonprofit, have been on the air in Alabama for weeks and are prepared to spend $10 million.
Both Brooks and Moore are trying to make the senator's Washington support an issue. In the interview with the Washington Examiner, Brooks referred to Strange's D.C. supporters as "swamp critters." Moore, in an email fundraising appeal, said that he is "McConnell's hand-picked crony."
The potential for being too closely identified with Washington is a reason why outside conservative support might be helpful. Alabama, said one GOP operative who consults for movement conservatives, is a state where Republican politics is driven by "bibles, guns, and Trumpism."
"Strange is letting Brooks make inroads," the Republican operative said. The senator, this insider continued, has a great story to tell conservatives about what he did to fight former President Barack Obama when he served as state attorney general.
Fiscal issues don't drive conservatism in Alabama. Cultural issues do, with religion, Second Amendment rights and suspicion of immigration and international trade tending to dominate Republican politics.
That's why Trump is particularly popular there, and why his endorsement could tip the race. Strange, who hasn't been shy about wanting the president's seal of approval, could have an edge over Brooks on "Trumpism."
Brooks, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives that hasn't hesitated to oppose Trump on Capitol Hill, endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016 and was slow to jump on Trump's bandwagon in the general election.
That is the primary case the Strange campaign, and allies, are making against Brooks, although he claims the facts are being twisted by his opponents.
"Like the typical Washington politician that he is, Mo Brooks is trying to erase his record of stridently opposing Donald Trump," said Chris Pack, spokesman for Senate Leadership Fund.
Brooks' more active outreach to key groups could make up the difference in a projected low-turnout special election, where only the most diehard Republicans are sure to show up. Brooks confirmed that he's actively pursuing these groups.
His conservative outreach has born some fruit on the Right. Talk radio personalities Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and Sean Hannity, all cheerleaders for Trump, are nevertheless backing Brooks. The question is whether the outside groups that have pull with GOP primary voters get involved.
A few organizations reached for this story said they were keeping their powder dry, for now. "Gun Owners of America is still examining all the candidates in the race. When we make a decision, we will let you know," Jordan Stein, the group's spokesman, said in an email exchange.
Like Bossie, they could be waiting for a signal from the president — or for the runoff, when the terrain will be more certain. "Obviously, there's going to be a runoff; it might be better to sit tight and wait to see what happens," he said.
This story was updated from its original version.