Former President Donald Trump welcomes candidate for Rep. Mo Brooks to the stage during a "Save America" rally at York Family Farms on August 21, 2021, in Cullman, Alabama.
CNN  — 

Just before Donald Trump took the stage at an August rally in Alabama that was meant to boost GOP Rep. Mo Brooks’ US Senate bid, the former President ran into one of Brooks’ primary opponents offstage.

The previously unreported encounter between Trump and Katie Boyd Britt was described as brief but friendly by three witnesses. The former President chatted with Britt about her campaign and with her husband Wesley Britt about his time as an offensive lineman with the New England Patriots. A source close to Trump recalled that he walked away from the conversation “newly impressed” by the 39-year-old candidate.

Meanwhile, Brooks left Trump with a different impression that evening. The six-term congressman, who had already been struggling to gain momentum in his campaign to replace retiring Sen. Richard Shelby, was booed by the audience for suggesting they move on from the 2020 election.

It was this pair of episodes — Trump’s chance encounter with Britt and Brooks’ less-than-enthusiastic reception — that first sowed frustration inside the former President’s orbit over Brooks’ performance in the Republican primary, according to multiple people who spoke to CNN. That frustration has since grown, leading to Brooks reassessing his campaign strategy in recent weeks.

One month before Trump met Britt at that August rally, the former President had dismissed her in a statement as “not in any way qualified” for the open Senate seat left by Shelby, for whom Britt had previously served as chief of staff. But by late November, three people close to Trump said he was complimenting her fundraising in private conversations and griping to allies that Brooks looked weak in comparison.

“He keeps getting reports from people who say Katie is making headway and all that is adding to the irritation,” said a person familiar with Trump’s complaints, adding that the former President “doesn’t like to lose or for people to think that he’s losing.”

Trump became so irritated last month that Brooks quietly reshuffled his campaign. At the beginning of December, he fired the two consultants who had been advising him since he nabbed Trump’s endorsement in April, replacing them with four new hires, including an alum of his unsuccessful 2017 Senate campaign. A Brooks campaign aide said the frustration among Trump and his allies was palpable, and the six-term congressman realized that something needed to change.

“You’re pissing away a lead and that’s a really awful thing to happen. That has to be incredibly frustrating,” the aide said, adding that “there hasn’t been much of a Brooks campaign for several months.”

A Trump aide said the former president is closely monitoring the race to see if Brooks can turn around his campaign.

Last week, Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin, who along with his brother John is a trusted Trump confidant, conducted a poll that found Britt narrowly leading Brooks in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, despite her lacking the same name recognition that Brooks enjoys with voters after six terms in Congress and a political career spanning 40 years. The same poll found that voters had an open mind ahead of the state’s May 24 primary and that Trump’s endorsement of Brooks had little impact on their decision.

“The race is wide open at this point. There is no overwhelming frontrunner,” said McLaughlin.

But Brooks and Britt aren’t alone in what is now a four-way race, which also includes Mike Durant, a helicopter pilot who was shot down and captured in the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident, and conservative businesswoman Jessica Taylor.

“Mo Brooks is a conservative fighter – that’s why President Trump endorsed him, why the conservative grassroots are with him, and as this poll shows, why he’s going to win this race,” Brooks campaign chairman Stan McDonald said in a statement shared with CNN.

In a separate statement, Britt spokesman Sean Ross said Alabama voters “want fresh blood in the Senate to shake things up, not a do-nothing, 40-year career politician.”

Going negative

The effort by Britt’s campaign to cast Brooks as a career politician is part of an intense messaging battle that has allies of both candidates bracing for a nasty turn in the race beginning next year. Republicans expect the race could become the most expensive GOP primary in the state, with a bevy of outside groups already positioning themselves to litter the airwaves with ads.

“She’s organizing and raising more money than anybody, which is a good sign, and it’s early,” Shelby told CNN of Britt. “I think she’s gonna be well financed.”

While both candidates have tried to paint one another as creatures of the Washington swamp, some fresh lines of criticism are likely to debut in the coming months as the Brooks campaign aims to avoid a runoff contest, which his own team concedes is increasingly unlikely.

“It’s probably a coin toss now,” said the Brooks campaign aide.

Two Brooks allies who were not authorized to discuss campaign strategy said the Alabama congressman will continue to link Britt to Shelby, the outgoing Republican senator, and also to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose popularity among Trump supporters may be waning amid an onslaught of criticism from the former president.

Britt left Shelby’s office in late 2018 to become chief executive of the Business Council of Alabama, but resigned from the position in June to pursue her Senate bid. One of Brooks’ allies suggested that Britt’s embrace of a gas tax increase while serving as BCA president could also be a vulnerability at a time when the cost of gasoline is soaring across the country.

Brooks, who gave a fiery speech at the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the deadly Capitol riot, was also the leader of the effort to overturn the electoral results in Congress – a move that initially ingratiated him with Trump. GOP sources expect that Brooks will try to link Britt to Shelby’s votes against efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in two states.

Shelby downplayed the attacks he’s likely to endure over the matter.

“We all are identified by our friends in what we do and what we stand for,” Shelby said. “And I think on that date, I did the right thing.”

Meanwhile, Britt allies claim Brooks is the walking definition of a career politician, having served 12 years in Congress and held numerous positions in Alabama over the course of the past four decades.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that Mo’s Achilles heel is that he’s seen as a career politician and they really have to think long and hard about fixing that,” said a person close to Brooks.

With four candidates already in the race and the possibility of a runoff if none of them cross a threshold of 50 percent support in the primary, observers of the race expect it to be one of, if not the most, expensive Senate races in Alabama’s history because the winner of primary will likely win the general election in the deeply red state.

Britt recently purchased several billboards across the state to help boost her name recognition and has received financial support from a handful of Republican senators.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close Trump ally, told CNN he attended a fundraiser last week on behalf of Britt.

“I like her,” Graham said, adding that his message to Trump is this: “Let’s let the people of Alabama figure it out.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who has transferred money to Britt’s campaign, said she has met with the candidate — and also took a shot at Brooks.

“Mo Brooks has made some comments about our farmers that are not appreciated in Iowa, and I know that Alabamians are not probably appreciative of them either,” Ernst said.

But a couple of conservative senators have come to Brooks’ defense.

“They’re going to probably want a conservative like Mo Brooks,” said Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said of Alabama voters. “I think he has a good chance.”

Durant’s entry into the race has also put the Brooks campaign on edge as they expect the Army veteran to spend significantly to boost his chance of making it to a runoff contest.

“The addition of Mike Durant into the race and his commitment to spend an inordinate amount of resources changed the dynamics significantly. It makes it more difficult for Brooks to win without a runoff and it makes it more difficult for Katie Britt to make it to a runoff,” said Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who abandoned his own plans to run for Senate earlier this year following an affair scandal. (Merrill spoke favorably of Brooks’ chances but has not endorsed in the primary.

Yet Shelby sees it differently.

“I think his candidacy hurts Mo Brooks,” the 87-year-old senator said.

Trump’s support ‘may not be enough’

Recently, Trump has complained of Brooks’ weak fundraising prowess and the statements he’s made about looking beyond the 2020 election. At the beginning of October, campaign filings show that Brooks had $1.85 million cash on hand compared to Britt’s $3.3 million. And while Brooks was the first House Republican who vowed to oppose congressional certification of Biden’s victory on January 6, he has since encouraged Alabama voters to shift their focus to 2022 and 2024. At a campaign event last Saturday, Brooks told the audience, “the day to fix the problem was January 6.”

A person close to Trump said the former President has been slow to grant requests from Brooks’ campaign for him to campaign alongside Brooks once more before voters cast their ballots in the primary next spring. Trump, this person added, has been particularly annoyed with Brooks’ lack of spending so far.

“Mo is famous for his frugality. He didn’t really hire campaign staff and didn’t want to spend money,” said a Republican operative familiar with the race.

While the Brooks aide said it is true that “Mo is a frugal candidate,” and they expect to be outspent by Britt and her allies, they added that Brooks and his allies “will be spending aggressively when we need to and we aren’t going to be there at the end of the day wishing we had spent more money.”

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowish told CNN that Brooks “continues to be a champion for President Donald J. Trump’s America First agenda.”

Yet, one of the issues that Alabama Republicans say is especially plaguing Brooks is his perceived lack of allegiance to Trump prior to launching his Senate campaign.

Before Trump received the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Brooks slammed his “gutter-mouth tendencies” and said he would not support a candidate who engaged in “serial adultery.” And when then-President Trump soured on then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his recusal from the Justice Department’s Russia probe, Brooks sided with Sessions in the matter, telling MSNBC at the time that Sessions “did exactly what he should have done… in order to minimize or eliminate the appearance of any impropriety.”

“Trump voters are still obsessed with Trump but they know who was loyal to him and who wasn’t and so they are still willing to break with him to support someone else who is supportive of him,” said the Republican operative familiar with the race.

A second person close to Trump said the former President has been “bitten by Alabama before and we shouldn’t be surprised if it happens again,” pointing to Trump’s failed 2017 endorsement of Sen. Luther Strange in the state’s Senate Republican primary runoff, when Strange was defeated by former Roy Moore, a retired state Supreme Court justice with a checkered past.

“Once again, his endorsement may not be enough,” this person said.

One of the people close to Brooks conceded that Trump’s endorsement could fall short of carrying the Alabama congressman to an easy victory because many Trump voters in the state remain “really, really mad” about the 2020 election and do not feel that Brooks adequately shares their concerns.

“Is [Trump’s] support valuable? No doubt, but not all Trump supporters are the same. It’s still a big question,” this person said.

And to some senators, they don’t seem too concerned about crossing Trump in this race, either.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia told CNN she’s backing Britt’s candidacy and “wants to be supportive of our woman Republicans.”

Asked about Trump backing a different candidate, Capito said of the former president: “Oh, you mean am I worried about him? I’m not worried about him.”

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that John Merrill has not endorsed anyone in the Republican primary in the Alabama Senate race.