In the Weeds: A career of fighting has led Byrne to Senate showdown

In the Weeds: A career of fighting has led Byrne to Senate showdown

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Bradley Byrne is a fighter.

That’s what Alabama’s 1st District Congressman says differentiates him from the field of other candidates in the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, and there’s plenty of evidence that his previous experience backs that up. Over a political career that has taken him from the state school board and the State Senate to the Alabama Community College System chancellor’s office and the U.S. House of Representatives, Byrne’s fights have been famous.

Perhaps the most successful was Byrne’s bout with the state’s two-year college system, which had been mired in a patronage scandal until he, a reform-minded governor and federal prosecutors came in to clean it up.

Perhaps the least successful was his run for governor in 2010 that saw him on a quixotic quest to take on the then-all-powerful state teachers’ association, only for that group to marshal untold resources to defeat him in the end.

Now Byrne finds himself in the middle of another high-profile fight as he seeks to win a U.S. Senate seat by first outmatching two better-known Republican rivals in former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville. The winner of the Republican primary — or runoff, if needed — will face incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November.

Most every campaign with this much at stake can turn negative, and sure enough, the final weeks of this race have seen those top three candidates concentrate their fire on each other.

Tuberville, Sessions and some outside political groups are hammering Byrne for the oldest political sin in the book: telling the truth. In 2016, after audio surfaced of then-candidate Donald Trump bragging about being powerful enough to grab women’s private parts, Byrne condemned the comments and called on Trump to step aside as the Republican nominee, saying he was “unfit” to be president.

Weeks later, Byrne affirmed his support for Trump and by all accounts has been a loyal defender of the president ever since. Still, for a party dominated by Trump in which one’s loyalty to him can be the only litmus test voters care about, the episode has had a residual impact.

For his part, Byrne calls his decision at the time “a mistake” and responds to questions by pointing to the president’s embrace of him on different occasions, including a post-impeachment White House event when Trump called Byrne by name and thanked him for his support.

As we meet in his campaign office in downtown Montgomery on a Friday afternoon ahead of the Alabama Republican Party’s winter dinner, Byrne is coming off a full day of campaigning. He’s traversed the state multiple times this week, including a trip across north Alabama earlier in the day. No one would blame him for being worn out, but as we begin the interview he is relaxed and determined to make his case for why he’s the best choice for Republicans to take on Jones in November.

As ably as he answers the political questions with all the requisite poll-tested talking points, Byrne’s real strength is policy. He’s eager to talk about policy, legislation, budgets – anything other than the sometimes silly issues that can dominate campaigns. How do we fix the debt? I have a bill that redefines mandatory spending, actually, he says. What issue isn’t being discussed enough? How about health care, so let’s talk about the Medicare Wage Index, he says.

Such acumen is what has endeared Byrne to the wonks of state and federal government for more than a decade, though it is less endearing to the increasing number of voters who prefer style over substance. Which is why Byrne again finds himself in a fight.

Read and listen to our full interview below.

Todd Stacy Well hey, Congressman.

Bradley Byrne How are you, Todd?

TS I’m great. I’m great. Thanks for coming on In the Weeds, our podcast. I guess by the time this airs, it’ll be a week out of election day. You’ve been blowing up, burning up the highway, how’s it been going?

BB It’s been great. Clear change in the race began about three weeks ago and the response from people is obviously much stronger, much more positive as people are probably beginning to make up their minds. And I’m not the only one that’s seeing it,  we’ve been talking to public officials all over the state and they have all told us that we sense that you’ve had a real change in the race for the better for you. So, it’s been good. But, you know, at end of a primary, it’s a tough, hard time when you’re trying to be everywhere at once and stuff happens at the end too – that’s always the case. But it’s not all bad. Sometimes that stuff is good for you and stuff has been good for us.

TS  People are starting to tune in as that’s what we’re seeing all over – the contrast ads – you’re punching, they’re punching. What’s your basic message? I’ve been asking all of the candidates, your opponents, why are you running for Senate? What is your pitch on why you want to serve in the Senate seat?

BB I’m the conservative fighter who’s proven by what he’s already done, that he will be an effective fighter for the people of Alabama and fight for the president to make sure that his agenda is adopted in the second term.

TS  How does that resonate on the campaign trail? What do you sense from voters is what is important to them?

BB Well, people will say to me, I’ve seen you on television. You’re the one that president thanked the other day. They say that to me. And my sense is that they’re looking for the person that’s going to do that, not just for the president, but for them going forward. And so, a lot of people, by the way, because they’ve seen these ads, have actually gone to do their homework, which is really great. So, they’ve actually gone on to see footage of me during the impeachment proceedings. They’ve checked out my claims and they’ve checked out the claims of the other candidates. So, they’re really doing their homework and I’m gratified by that.

TS  Some folks will argue – fair or not – that in today’s Senate environment, the Republicans and the Democrats have never been further apart, probably; that you and your opponents, Sessions and Tuberville, might not even vote that differently in the United States Senate, maybe ninety-nine percent of the time would vote the same.  I don’t know, is that true? And if that’s the case, then what makes you the better candidate than the other two?

BB Well, I think we do disagree on some issues. Tommy Tuberville and I strongly disagree about amnesty for illegal immigrants and I wonder if we don’t have further disagreements about other things because of the philosophy that drove him to the point where he could say that. So, I’m not willing to concede that Tommy Tuberville and I would necessarily vote the same.

Jeff Sessions and I probably for the most part would. We’ve known one another for a long time; we share a lot of common viewpoints on things. So, you’re probably more correct on Jeff then you would be on Tuberville.

Why me and not them? Because I’ve proven that I am an effective fighter for the things that matter and I keep coming back to that word fighter, because I think everybody realizes we’re in a long-term fight here. Just because the impeachment proceedings are over doesn’t mean the fight itself is over. And I think voters are looking for somebody that not only has the right words to say about it, but we actually have a proven track record of being an effective fighter for the things they care about.

TS  Your opponents are attacking you. One of the most common refrains goes back to 2016 in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape and you saying the then-candidate Donald Trump was unfit to be president. Of course, you later affirmed your support of the president, but that is an attack. You see it on TV quite a bit. What’s your response to that? How do you answer to voters who may be concerned about that?

BB I’ll let Donald Trump answer them by saying “Bradley Byrne from Alabama. What a great state, thank you, Bradley.” I was one of only about a dozen House members that he invited to the White House that day. I think that answers that pretty clearly and the voters certainly understand that. So, I understand the attack. But not only do I think it’s not working; I know it’s not working.

TS  People play different roles in the Senate. You know, like there’s different roles in Congress. You’ve played those roles. You have the folks that hang around for a long time, get on Appropriations or other committees that want to do long-term projects. You have flamethrowers, messengers. They’re just different kind of roles that people play in the Senate. And I’m curious about what role you would see yourself, because it’s a lot different than the House. I mean, six-year term, it’s the upper chamber. What would you see your sort of Senate role being?

BB Well, I think that we’re going to have to have somebody that is going to have to step up and be that senior senator from Alabama when Sen. Shelby leaves. And so until that time occurs, I need to make sure I’m preparing myself for that, because the senators in Alabama have – going back decades – been extremely important to lots of things around the state of Alabama, from Redstone Arsenal to the port in Mobile to Maxwell Air Force Base, Fort Rucker, Anniston Army Depot and highway projects, et cetera. So that’s part of it. But on a more national scale, I think that I would like to be somebody who’s very active in national defense. I’m on the Armed Services Committee in the House. I’ve built up a pretty substantial body of knowledge there, relationships, et cetera. It’s important to the country to have people that have that and also have people from Alabama had that because Alabama benefits so much from that. So, I think that’s going to be something that I would be. I’m a fighter, but I’m not just turning on the flamethrower all the time. That’s not my style. I think everybody knows that. I pick my fights. When I get in a fight. I’m in it to win it. I pick my fights. I’m not likely to be somebody that’s going to be on the major national news works networks a lot because – I’ve been on a lot recently because of this impeachment thing – but I’m really more of a workhorse, not a show horse. For how long I’ll be there, that’s really up to the people of Alabama. I don’t intend to make a career out of it. I’m not at a  point in my life where that would make sense anyway. So, I’ll be there as long as I can be effective for the people of the state of Alabama.

TS  You know, we hear a lot in this campaign, like you said, about overarching federal issues: immigration, some on trade, religious liberty and just anything surrounding Donald Trump. However, it seems to me – maybe it’s going on and I’m not hearing about it – it seems like sometimes more parochial state issues don’t get talked about as much. And maybe there are reasons for that. But you just mentioned a couple of things like the military and things like this. Are we missing that in this Senate conversation? And what are some of those issues?

BB Well, I talk about them whenever I go to certain areas because people want you to talk about them. You know, those areas you go to Huntsville, they want you to talk about Redstone and what you can do for Redstone. Forty-thousand plus people work on base every day at Redstone. It’s very important to that area.

Same is true in Anniston for the Anniston Army Depot and same is true for the Wiregrass, Fort Rucker. Certainly, in Montgomery for Maxwell Air Force Base. And down in Mobile. We talk about those things there or it may be a hospital closing or it may be things that are pertinent to the university or college in their area. We visited a lot of those or it may be pertinent to their local hospital. We visited a lot of hospitals and talked about how federal policy affects that hospital. You know, Terri Sewell and I led that letter that 80-some odd members of the House signed on to that was the political cover for the head of Medicare under President Trump to change the formula that provides how much money hospitals get in reimbursement for Medicare.

TS  What’s it called?

BB It’s the Medicare Wage Index.

TS  Right. Right.

BB This is something that the hospital association, the Alabama Hospital Association, has been working on for like 20-plus years.

TS Yeah.

BB Alabama hospitals were getting 20% less on average than hospitals in other states. It’s important to all of our hospitals but for these smaller rural hospitals, it’s critical. Half of their patient load is Medicare. We were able to get that change back in October, and that’s provided a substantial amount of money to these small hospitals. One hospital told me it’s an extra $2 million a year for them, which is like the difference between existence and nonexistence. So, we do talk about those things when we go out there. And local press and those local areas will cover that topic, but it’s not as likely that other larger press outlets will focus on that. I understand that’s a big part of the senator’s role. I mean, it’s been a big part of my role as a congressman. I understand. You do it on a statewide basis. You’re a senator. And Sen. Shelby certainly has been terrific at that. So, we do talk about it. I think those are important things to talk about with the voters. So, they know that you care about their area and what things the federal government can do to help them.

TS  One issue that I also think gets neglected is debt. I mean, I don’t know what happened. We’re sitting here at $22 trillion in debt and it’s almost like nobody wants to talk about it. You’ve been involved in fiscal issues, not just in Congress, but here in the state going back to those days. What are we going to do? What’s the fix to getting out of debt and dealing with this constant deficit spending?

TS  Well, at the federal level, unlike at the state level, we have something called mandatory spending. 70 percent of all federal outlays are mandatory spending, which means Congress doesn’t appropriate them. They just go out automatically. Now, some of that’s Medicare and Social Security. People paid into those funds. I get that. I have a bill that would take all mandatory spending that’s not Social Security and not Medicare and not Tricare and not the mandatory part of V.A. health care. Take everything else and make it discretionary. That’s $1.2 trillion. You just can’t balance the budget on 30% of outlays. We’ve got to expand the percentage of outlays that we can attack this with tinkly when 30 percent have 30 percent of defense. So, I have a bill that would do that. And I think if we did that, I think that would give the Congress the power that we should have and that we should use in order to substantially lower the growth of federal spending. In many respects, we don’t have to cut so much as just slow the growth. If we slow the growth and get it below growth of revenue, you got to balance. So, I’ve got a bill on that.

We’ve got a lot of people that are working with us on it.

TS  Seems like a bit of a third rail to grab. You’re saying it’s going to take hard choices. You’re saying we need more choices, basically.

BB We’ve got to have more, more choices, more dollars so we can make choices with. So, what’s in that $1.2 trillion? Well, there’s two or three hundred programs. But the big ones are Medicaid and Medicare, welfare, food stamps and government housing assistance. The needs-based entitlement programs that grew dramatically during the Great Recession but have not come down in this incredibly good economy. Something structurally wrong there. And we’ve got to fix that.

TS  Let’s go back to immigration for just a minute, because you talked about it in reference to Tuberville. What is the fix there? Because I hear what you say about amnesty. We know the talking points and all that. What is there to be done about it? There’s 12 million people here. Where do we send them back to get in line again? The feasibility of that? I mean, beyond that, the commercials and talking points, how do we actually deal with an immigration problem like that?

BB Well, first of all, you’ve got to close the border. And then a big part of that is building the wall. The president’s right about that. Secondly, we’ve got to change the nation’s asylum laws. They’re being gamed by just about everybody coming across the border. Eighty percent of them don’t show up for the hearings. You get turned loose and never see him again. Got to put more personnel and more equipment down there. As far as the people that are already here, a lot of them show up at our law enforcement system. It’s not like we have to go out, find them. They’re picked up for DUI or this crime or that crime or come across in some other way. They owe a debt or something. Once they have presented themselves to us, in whichever way they do, we need to deport them. We don’t need to give them a job. We don’t need to give them citizenship. We need to deport them. And that will send a message to people thinking about come across, hey, this doesn’t work. Now, do I think realistically we can go out and find and roundup and deport all eleven or 12 million people? No, of course not. You can’t do that. But we’ve got many of them that we know about them because they present themselves to us in the legal system. And those people surely should be deported.

TS  Switching gears to the horse race that is going on right now. Here we are a week out. What has to happen between now and Election Day for you to be in that runoff?

BB We need to stay on the trajectory we’re on. It’s very clearly working there. A lot of things – you know, Todd, we started a year ago yesterday – a lot of things that we started putting together a year ago to build to this moment to turn our vote out. So, obviously we’re turning that on. So, between those two, if we do our job the way it’s been designed and so far we’ve done everything, the campaign, the way we’ve designed it, I think we’re going to be fine on Election Day. Now we’re going to runoff. I mean, there’s no question about that. And I think it’s pretty clear it’s going to be Jeff Sessions and me. And so, you just pick up the day after the primary and keep moving.

TS Well, that’s my next question, what has to happen in the runoff? But I mean, you know, they shortened the window, it’s only four weeks now.

BB I think that’s good.

TS  Well, it could be. But it changes the dynamic for sure. Have you all had these tactical conversations? I mean, what happens the day after? You’ve got to regroup and start going again?

BB Well, the campaign changes dramatically when it’s down to two people. And if we’re on the two people, it’s Jeff Sessions that changes dramatically because it’s president’s feelings. OK, let’s just be honest about that.

TS  You think he does something? He tweets?

BB Well, I don’t speak for the president. But you take what he’s already said about Jeff Sessions. In other words, just take what he’s already said about him. And I think he’s a factor in the race. So, I think that runoff is about Jeff Sessions and Jeff Sessions’ relationship or lack thereof with the president. And so exactly how you message that or whatever the right word is, I don’t know. But I think that’s going to become a key part of that campaign – it may become the only part of that campaign. Plus, just the blocking and tackling of turning out your vote, because whatever the vote total is on March the 3rd, it’s going to be lower on March 31st, it’s going to be hard to get people back out to vote again.

TS  Speaking of Sessions, I mean, his entrance into this race is really the most significant thing that happened; it changed everything. Nobody signed up — when you announced, when Tuberville announced, when Moore announced — nobody thought that Jeff Sessions was going to run for his old Senate seat back. It changed everything. So, how has that been? And yet he didn’t run away with the race, as a lot of people thought. So how has that dynamic changed the race for you? Like you said, it’s been a year.

BB Well, we have not changed the plan for our campaign at all. Obviously, you change certain tactical things that you do as new things happen in any race. That’s just the way it is but it hasn’t changed our campaign plan at all. Before he had already entered the race. We were way far down the road. We signed a lot of people up. We had raised an awful lot of money. We’re on our cruise path that shows this is where we go. And to that extent, it really hasn’t done anything to us at all. Now, does it change the overall dynamic? Of course, it does. Each time somebody significant gets a race or changes the dynamic of the race, this way it is.

I think he has been surprised. Well, I know he’s been surprised, he’s told people that he’s talked to that he’s been surprised the extent to which people haven’t just sort of said “yeah, Jeff, we’re for you.” And that’s been particularly true down in my congressional district where he’s from. He has not picked up support down there he thought it was going to get. So, I think it’s probably been as big a problem for him as it may be for any of the rest of us. And he has not gotten a significant amount of support, for being a practical incumbent in this race. If you’re a practical incumbent in a race like this and you can’t get 50% in the first go around, there’s something big time wrong, any political expert will tell you that. So, we’ll see what he gets on Election Day, but it ain’t gonna to be 50%. And I think that this problem with the president is going to haunt him all the way through the runoff.

TS  You having fun out there on the campaign trail?

BB For the most part. I am. When you get down to this part of the campaign, you’re constantly going. So, you’re running on adrenaline. And there are times when the adrenaline gives out. You think, OK, I need to go curl up on that couch over there and take a nap. But the response from the people the last few weeks has been so great. That’s really lifted me up. So, we’re going to keep doing it and people keep lifting us up and would have as much fun as we possibly can.

TS  All right. Thank you for your time.

BB You’re welcome.