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The rise, fall and (sort of) rise of Mo Brooks explains GOP gun politics

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) speaks to supporters at a primary night party at the Huntsville Botanical Gardens on Tuesday. (Vasha Hunt/AP)
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Standing on the Capitol steps in late April, Rep. Mo Brooks (R) predicted his political revival in the Alabama Senate race because one of his Republican challengers had committed a conservative apostasy: hypothesizing about seizing guns to reduce crime.

“Those things have torpedoed his ship, and he’s sinking fast,” Brooks said at the time.

On Tuesday, hours after another massacre carried out by a gunman, Brooks’s prediction turned into prophecy as he surged into second place in the state’s Republican primary and advanced to a runoff race next month to determine the GOP nominee.

Brooks finished with 29 percent in the initial primary ballot, as first-time candidate Mike Durant, a businessman and former Army pilot who once embraced the idea of disarming Americans living in cities, sunk to 23 percent. Katie Britt, a former top aide to retiring Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R), finished with 45 percent and will square off against Brooks in a June 21 runoff election.

The onetime front-runner had been left for politically dead two months ago after former president Donald Trump revoked his endorsement. Now, with turnout likely to be much less next month than the almost 650,000 who voted in Tuesday’s primary, some Republicans are not counting Brooks out.

“He’s got a base that’s going to go vote,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who won a GOP runoff two years ago, said on Wednesday.

The rise, fall and semi-rise of Brooks encapsulates the power that gun rights hold inside Republican politics, particularly in deep-red southern and western states and despite national polling showing overwhelming support for some restrictions on gun ownership.

Forsaken by Trump, Brooks finds a second wind in Alabama Senate race

How would a compromise vote against gun rights impact his political career in such a conservative state? “They would probably throw me out of office,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told reporters Wednesday.

Massacres like Tuesday’s killing of 19 elementary school students and two adult staff members in Texas often prompt discussions of common ground steps to rein in gun violence. But then the fear of GOP primary voters almost always prompts Senate Republicans to back away, at least enough of them to sustain a filibuster and defeat gun revision efforts.

Many Senate Republicans will see Durant’s fall, and Brooks’s comeback, as the latest example of why they steer clear of gun negotiations. In an era where Trump’s endorsement was considered so critical, along with backing his “big lie” about the 2020 election being stolen, Durant demonstrated that running afoul of gun rights might be a bigger sin than falling out of favor with the former president.

Some personal issues dogged Durant, along with accusations of being a carpetbagger who hardly ever voted in Alabama. But the gun issue also played a big role, Shelby said Wednesday. “I think it hurt him. I think it hurt him a lot in the state.”

Durant entered the Senate race as the unknown candidate with a sterling personal résumé: a decorated Army helicopter pilot who was held hostage by terrorists in Somalia in 1993, a deadly battle documented by the 2001 movie “Black Hawk Down.”

But he had no patron in the race, while Britt had Shelby’s backing with local power brokers and national donors, and Brooks had Trump, until he didn’t.

Brooks — who spoke at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally with Trump before the Capitol riot — jumped into the Senate race soon after Shelby announced he would retire. Trump endorsed him quickly thereafter, and Brooks seemed to be coasting to the Senate.

Mo Brooks urged a Jan. 6 crowd to ‘fight.’ Now his actions long before the insurrection face new scrutiny.

But Brooks floundered this year, falling into third place, prompting Trump to back out and blame the six-term congressman with going “woke” by not talking about election fraud.

That positioned Durant to go after Brooks’s supporters and pursue Trump’s endorsement.

Instead, Britt and Durant engaged in a furious two-month battle focusing most of their attention on one another, leaving Brooks to try to regroup.

A super PAC funded by Britt’s allies focused on Durant’s 2011 speech at the Army War College discussing the Somalia raid. The initial goal was “disarming the population,” he said, before ad-libbing a hypothetical line that got the attention of his opponents.

“Let’s face it. If we could do that with some of our U.S. cities, that would be a pretty good step towards law and order,” Durant said, a line that got played over and over in the ads.

Durant and his allies ripped into Britt as part of the establishment that opposed Trump.

And Brooks just sat there, avoiding the fire, boosted by millions of dollars in ads from the Club for Growth.

How Trump’s pact with the Club for Growth turned into a grudge match

“Katie Britt and Mike Durant have been very viciously attacking each other recently,” he said in a brief interview after House votes April 26. “That has hurt their standing and helped my standing.”

But, as Tuesday’s results showed, Durant took the biggest hit and Brooks benefited from that fall.

Asked what prompted the Durant free fall, Tuberville mentioned guns first. “They had some videos of him talking about doing away with guns,” he said.

All of this occurred as the most storied gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, played only a cursory role in the race. Amid investigations and infighting, the NRA’s political operation has shrunk in the past few years and served as a side note in the Alabama race.

Both Britt and Durant received A ratings from the NRA, but it was considered a “qualified” grade since neither had a voting record on guns the way Brooks had. But other groups, not the NRA, played a key role in airing the gun ads.

“They don’t have any money. They endorsed Brooks, but they didn’t do any — if they submitted any money, I didn’t know about it,” Shelby said.

Cramer says the NRA’s political clout has been something of a myth for some time. GOP primary voters don’t need to be told to vote for gun supporters by some association, he said, because they genuinely love gun rights.

“It’s not the NRA. It’s gun owners, individual gun owners,” Cramer said.

In the closing days of the primary, Brooks brought in Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and other allies to vouch for him at campaign stops. Cruz took a thinly veiled shot at Durant’s video clip and suggested Brooks was the most pro-gun candidate.

“Don’t listen to a person’s words, look to their actions,” Cruz said Monday. “And when it comes to who’s going to stand up to secure the border, or who’s going to stand up for the Second Amendment, who’s going to stand up for the constitutional rights of the people of Alabama, I don’t have to guess with Mo Brooks.”