President Donald Trump made his first major foray into the 2022 battle for the Senate on Wednesday, endorsing Rep. Mo Brooks to succeed Sen. Richard C. Shelby in Alabama — a major boost for a candidate who has operated on the rightmost edge of the Republican Party and who emerged last year as one of the foremost promoters of Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.

Trump’s move could pose a dilemma for Senate Republican leaders who will have to choose whether they want to try to stop the ascension of the conservative firebrand or support his candidacy as part of their embrace of the former president’s brand of populism that increasingly defines the party.

“Few Republicans have as much COURAGE and FIGHT” as Brooks, Trump said in a statement issued through his Save America super PAC. “Mo is a great Conservative Republican leader, who will stand up for America First no matter what obstacles the Fake News Media, RINOs, or Socialist Democrats may place in his path.”

Brooks led efforts in the House to challenge multiple states’ 2020 electoral vote tallies, and he was a featured speaker at the Jan. 6 “Save America” rally that preceded the storming of the Capitol by a violent pro-Trump mob.

“Our ancestors sacrificed their blood, their sweat, their tears, their fortunes and sometimes their lives” to found the country, he said on the morning of the riot. “Are you willing to do the same?” He later told the crowd, “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”

Brooks on Wednesday quickly updated the logo on his campaign website and social media accounts to prominently feature “ENDORSED BY TRUMP.”

“I am honored and humbled by President Trump’s strong endorsement,” he said in a Facebook posting Wednesday. “I ask all Americans who share our America First vision to heed and honor President Trump’s request by joining our campaign.”

While Brooks’s controversial stances have drawn criticism in the past, he is far from alone among Republican lawmakers in joining Trump in making false claims about the 2020 election results, putting him closer to its mainstream then he was just a few years ago when he last ran for the Senate. A Monmouth poll released last month found 65 percent of Republicans saying that President Biden won due to voter fraud.

Trump had previously endorsed three Senate incumbents ahead of their 2022 reelection bids — Sens. John Boozman (Ark.), ­Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Tim Scott (S.C.) — but his Brooks nod is his first for a nonincumbent in a Senate race. Trump endorsements could be similarly vital in other open-seat Senate races in Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Trump also endorsed a GOP challenge to a House incumbent, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), who voted for his impeachment in January.

The early nod, political observers said, could put national Republican political figures in a bind — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has sought to distance the GOP from Trump’s unfounded voter fraud claims, prompting a nasty public clash with the former president.

Steve Flowers, a former state legislator and veteran Alabama political analyst, said the Trump endorsement increases pressure on the establishment wing of the party to unite behind a competitor, lest Brooks capitalize on Trump’s endorsement to soar above a crowded field.

“It does make it clear to the business community, the Republicans in the Chamber of Commerce groups and the Mitch McConnell-Richard Shelby wing of the Republican Party that they need to coalesce around a mainstream candidate,” he said.

Trump’s endorsement comes as several more establishment-
oriented Republicans ponder potential runs, including Katie Boyd Britt, a former top Shelby aide who leads the Business Council of Alabama. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who had made moves toward running, announced Wednesday that he would not proceed after admitting to an extramarital affair.

Observers said Trump’s decision to endorse Brooks is a clear setback to the only other declared candidate, Lynda Blanchard, a wealthy political donor who served as Trump’s ambassador to Slovenia. Blanchard said in a statement Wednesday that she was undaunted.

“He is the greatest President of my lifetime, and I intend to go to Washington as the United States Senator from Alabama to represent the America First agenda that President Trump championed every day,” Blanchard said, adding that she would “remain steadfast in my commitment to this race.”

While McConnell has been broadly successful during his 14 years as the top Senate Republican leader in keeping his ranks united behind his leadership, that could change should Brooks win the GOP nomination. The 66-year-old Huntsville resident has a history of taking on his party’s leaders in Congress — including two Republicans House speakers, as a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, and McConnell, too.

McConnell played a role in foiling Brooks’s last Senate campaign, during a 2017 special election. With McConnell’s blessing, national Republican groups threw their support behind the appointed incumbent, Sen. Luther Strange, in an ill-fated bid to deny the Republican nomination to Roy Moore, the populist former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who faced child sex abuse allegations. Moore ultimately won the nomination before losing to Democrat Doug Jones.

During the 2017 campaign, Brooks called for McConnell’s removal as GOP leader, calling him “head of the swamp” and lambasting him for authorizing what he derided as misleading ads. Brooks would not commit to backing McConnell as GOP leader when he launched his current campaign last month.

David Mowery, a Montgomery-based political consultant, said big questions remain to be answered about the 2022 Senate race — including whether Trump intended to follow up his endorsement statement with campaign videos, rallies, fundraisers or other more visible activities in support of Brooks.

The primary election is scheduled for May 24, 2022, but some state officials have proposed delaying the date to account for the redistricting process, which is starting late due to Census Bureau delays.

The early Trump endorsement and the late primary could cause complications for competitors, Mowery said, who may find it daunting to commit to a lengthy campaign with Trump already having anointed a candidate.

“If you’re looking at getting in the race, do you bang your head against the wall this whole time, trying to find a lane, knowing that maybe it was all over before you started?” he said. “Or do you want to look at some deep polling and things like that, and try to figure out what message peels people off of Mo despite him having Trump’s endorsement?”

McConnell and other national GOP operatives, he said, will face a simple question when it comes to trying to derail Brooks — “Do you even try?” — though he said the low cost of TV ad time in Alabama could make it a relatively minor investment for McConnell and his allies.

McConnell has not weighed in on individual races, but this year he said he was ready to intervene in primaries where an extreme candidate might put the seat in jeopardy for Republicans in a general election: “The only thing I care about is electability,” he told Politico in February.

By that standard, McConnell allies would have a hard time justifying getting involved in the Alabama primary. State operatives and national forecasters agree: Republicans are all but guaranteed to keep Shelby’s seat.

While Jones was able to take advantage of Moore’s unique toxicity in a low-turnout special election, he lost his reelection bid by 20 percentage points last year despite outspending the GOP nominee, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, by a 4-to-1 margin.

“Whoever wins that Republican primary will be your senator,” said Flowers, the analyst. “If Mickey Mouse was the Republican nominee, he’d win.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.