December 11, 2023

Her résumé is the stuff of what the coaches in Tuscaloosa and Auburn would call a five-star recruit — at least if politics was still being played as it was when she first entered the fray two decades ago on the University of Alabama campus.

Hailing from the legume-heavy Wiregrass region of southeast Alabama, Britt became “Little Miss Peanut” at seven, was elected student body president at ’Bama, rose to chief of staff for her predecessor, Richard C. Shelby, and then ran the state’s powerful business lobby before, at 40, becoming the youngest Republican woman ever elected to the Senate.

Now, at 41, she’s become not only well-liked by colleagues in both parties but, more remarkably, a sought-after inside player in a way that’s unusual for a non-celebrity senator during their first months in office. It’s easy to see why Britt is so appealing, particularly to the chamber’s institutionalists: She’s engaging, respectful of her elders, well-versed on substance and more focused on her state than garnering hits on Fox prime time.

“If she aspires to rise through elected leadership, I see a pretty clear path forward,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told me.

There are evident public indicators of her positive first impression, namely receiving a coveted slot on the Appropriations Committee and a role in the conference’s leadership. Yet more striking is what’s taking place just below the surface.

Britt has already headlined out-of-town fundraising retreats for her more senior colleagues, a rare honor for a new lawmaker, and will do so at another later this year in South Carolina for Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

She’s also moving quickly to leverage her deep ties to her alma mater — her husband, Wesley, starred at offensive tackle there — to make Tuscaloosa even more of a bucket list destination than the football team may deserve this year (sorry, Wesley).

Britt and Cornyn co-hosted a fundraiser for the Senate GOP campaign committee in Birmingham earlier this month and the next day attended the Crimson Tide’s opener against the University of Texas before setting off to South Texas and joining a handful of other senators on a dove hunt.

Now, Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) is due at Bryant-Denny Stadium this Saturday for the Ole Miss game.

As in: the two leading successors to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell will have been on Britt’s own turf, quite literally, before September is even out.

“Someday she’ll be running this place,” Thune said of Britt and the Senate.

Britt’s Democratic colleagues are no less glowing.

“Whatever the Republican Party does is whatever the Republican Party does, but if they can’t see Katie as a very talented conservative that’s on them,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who serves with Britt on Appropriations, told me when I asked if her future was in the Senate or a national ticket.

Speaking to Britt, it’s easy to detect the outlines of how she’d present herself in a future bid for leader or president.

“You know, I am the only Republican female with school-aged kids in the entire United States Senate,” she told me. “There’s actually only three women with school-aged kids in the entire U.S. Senate.”

Expounding on why hers is “a voice that has sometimes been on the outside,” she said moms “want our communities to be safe, we want that security, we want them to have opportunity, we want to protect the American dream.”

Asked if she wants to be president someday, Britt said she was “humbled,” had been “underestimated” much of her life by dint of her small-town, public-school upbringing and a few other lines, none of which included the word “no.”

If her gender, youth and role as a mother of two stand out in a party presently dominated by older men — and one in particular — her other, more traditional credentials recall an earlier day. But it’s not clear that somebody of Britt’s thoroughly establishment pedigree is what today’s Republican Party is interested in.

She’s the only member of Alabama’s GOP congressional delegation who has yet to endorse Trump. Britt has avoided doing so via a fig leaf of neutrality she claims from her service on a Republican National Committee panel. It’s a dodge that senior Republicans find laughable but, as one party official told me, “I’m happy for her to get away with it because I want her to be successful.”

Such admiration is typical in Washington, as is the cynicism around Trump it comes wrapped in.

In Alabama, though, Republicans don’t just pretend to support Trump.

When a former colleague of Bradley Byrne, who previously represented the Mobile area in Congress, called him to ask why nearly the entire delegation had endorsed Trump, Byrne recalled replying: “Why don’t you come spend a couple days down here and I won’t have to explain anything.”

The best summer competition in the state, he said, was found on the state’s Gulf Coast, where Alabama boat owners compete with one another on how many Trump flags they can fly on their vessels.

Britt is rooted in the pre-MAGA party, but she has to toe a rhetorical tightrope representing a state where the former president is held in the same esteem as air conditioning, the New Testament and Bear Bryant.

“More than anyone I know, Katie has the ability to bridge the Chamber of Commerce camp and the Trump populist camp,” Clay Ryan, a top official at the University of Alabama told me. “She’s equally comfortable, and resonates with people, in Enterprise or Mountain Brook,” Ryan added, alluding to Britt’s rural hometown and Birmingham’s tony suburb.

In two conversations, Britt was the picture of discipline, finding ways to critique President Joe Biden as she recalled a congressional delegation trip abroad (never mind that most foreign leaders are petrified about Trump’s return) and only glancingly alluding to her party’s once and potential future leader.

What she is more candid about, however, is her antipathy for Trump-style insult politics.

“I really believe we have to get back to a place in this nation where you don’t have to agree with someone 100 percent to show them respect and to be able to have a conversation and dialogue that you can learn from,” Britt told me.

When I pointed out that she’s not one to race to the Russell Building’s rotunda, where the network and cable television cameras film interviews, Britt interjected with gusto.

“The people of Alabama sent me up here to be a workhorse not a show horse and I am interested in achieving solutions and working diligently to learn the issues and to build the relationships because when you merge those two things that’s when you can actually get something done,” she said. Later this year, however, she will step out when she releases a book, “God Calls Us To Do Hard Things,” that chronicles her upbringing and recounts both her successes and setbacks. Promoting a mini-memoir at 41 is more show horse than workhorse, but Britt, recognizing as much, emphasized that she agreed to write it only when she was told she could chronicle her “failures and lessons learned” to help “inspire young people.”

Her longtime friends say that’s the authentic Britt.

“If you go to one of her children’s sporting events with her, for example, she will know everyone’s name — from the coaches to the concession crew,” said Mary Margaret Carroll, a lobbyist in Montgomery who’s been close to Britt since childhood. “She will be volunteering with other parents instead of working the crowd.”

This summer, Britt agreed to keynote an Alabama fundraiser for Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) but then wound up not being able to fulfill her commitment. She made up for it by texting every host of the event to tell them how much she liked working with Wicker, I’m told.

If it all sounds like so much syrupy-sweet Southern shtick, well bless your heart, as Britt may say (no, really, she actually uses the phrase — after she was included on a list of Americans banned from Russia she said of Vladimir Putin: “I’d say bless his heart, but he doesn’t have one.”)

But you don’t move in ’Bama’s ferocious student politics, Shelby’s office and particularly the male-dominated Business Council of Alabama on the strength of Junior League decorum.

While her kindness helps explain her fast rise in the Senate, I was as interested in Britt the Southern pol.

How she overcame being a polling blip to defeat a sitting congressman, Mo Brooks, whom Trump initially backed, and a self-funding military veteran, Mike Durant, to win the nomination (and effectively her seat) last year has been well-told.

With Shelby’s strong encouragement and financial help, Britt and her husband traversed the state, both considerable draws in football-mad Alabama, and outfoxed the competition.

She and her husband also planted themselves in Trump’s path at a 2021 rally Trump held in Alabama, and Wesley reminded the former president they had met when the former lineman played for the New England Patriots. The following year, the attractive female candidate and her 6’8’’ husband won over Trump, who, you may have noticed, is more fixated on appearances than policy papers. Racing to bolster his win-loss record, and dump the plummeting Brooks, Trump endorsed Britt as she rolled to a landslide runoff victory.

Perhaps more revealing of Britt is what happened after she won the nomination. The nominee came to Washington, I’m told by a source with no Britt affiliation who heard the story contemporaneously, and had to be counseled by Shelby to act more magnolia than steel and not confront Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at a Senate GOP luncheon. She was still angry that, in her view, McConnell’s allies had flirted with Durant during the contest.

Britt didn’t deny the story when I asked her about it, saying: “Nobody has to worry about me coming for their back, I will come straight and look you in the eyeballs.”

It may prove hard to sustain that approach, however, if she continues to straddle between the pre- and post-Trump party. The only grumbling about Britt to be heard in Washington so far is owed to that straddle.

After winning a seat on Appropriations, she became the ranking Republican on the subcommittee that funds border agencies. But after ostensibly having helped craft the panel’s spending package, she opposed it when it came before the full committee. Why agree to serve on that subcommittee if you can’t even vote for the bill it produces five years before your reelection?

The answer is because Britt has sought to establish herself as a hard-liner on immigration, visiting the border three times in her first months in office. In explaining her “no” vote at the committee hearing, Britt said there was not enough money “to end — rather than manage — the ongoing border crisis.”

Fresh from her campaign, she clearly recognizes immigration as one of the top litmus-test issues in a party in the grip of Trump’s personality cult.

“There’s nothing like a hotly contested election to help you understand where voters are in the present moment,” as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) put it.

Her allies emphasize that she can’t be pigeonholed, implicitly suggesting Britt can flourish as a kind of hybrid Republican.

“It’s a lazy exercise for people to try to slot her in some sort of lane,” said Joe Hack, a friend and adviser who served with her when they were both Senate chiefs of staff. Hack did, though, concede it’s “a challenge” how people put “different expectations and hopes upon her.”

One of those hopes — and it’s often found in the voices of younger Republicans appalled by Trump — is that Britt represents the promise of a new day, that just maybe the party can eventually be salvaged by somebody who looks and sounds like them.

Without looking for it, I heard of four instances of Republicans under 50 who made a point of having their children’s picture taken with Britt at events this year.

Some of the GOP’s most compelling women have bowed to Trump in hopes of being picked as his running mate, something that Britt admirers, men and women alike, have misgivings about her doing next year. In fact, at least one of her friends has gently urged her to play the long game and not to let herself be used by Trump in his quest to improve his standing with women.

Britt doesn’t shy away from being the beau ideal of a certain sort of Republican, one perhaps in the bargaining phase of their Trump-era grief. Here, though, is where the Southern lady reserve falls away and the aspiring candidate breaks through.

“I absolutely embrace it,” she said, “For people to see themselves in me is an incredibly high compliment. They see what I represent, and it speaks to them.”

The other notable way in which Britt will plant a flag is on national security.

“I’ve been impressed by her since the beginning, and I think she has a similar view,” McConnell told me about Britt and their shared hawkishness.

She explained her support for spending money on Ukraine’s defense in a fashion that echoed McConnell’s argument.

“An emboldened Russia is an emboldened China is an emboldened Iran,” said Britt. “And make no mistake, none of those are our friends.”

Shaped by a childhood in the shadow of Fort Rucker, the home of Army aviation, she concedes her fellow hawks must “do a better job of articulating what we’re doing and why we’re doing it” internationally because “gone are the days of just no questions.”

When I pointed out that she, unlike Tuberville, didn’t sign the letter from fellow Senate freshman Republican J.D. Vance of Ohio vowing to oppose any additional funding for Ukraine, released the day President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to Washington this week, Britt only offered a terse “no.”

She was nearly as restrained when I asked her about Tuberville’s hold on military promotions in protest of the Biden administration providing service members with abortion access, a blockade that has irritated many Senate Republicans. In fact, she dodged my question entirely when I asked her if her fellow Alabama senator is doing the right thing.

After a pause, she criticized the administration’s abortion policy and said it was “critically important” that Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer take up senior officer promotions on the floor, as he did this week, without ever mentioning Tuberville.

The two Alabamians are stand-ins for the two factions of their party, which is now divided less by ideology than by style and allegiance to Trump. They’re also a microcosm of the choice Republicans will face about their future should the former president be nominated and lose again next fall. Will the GOP drift on as a regional party, represented by figures like Tuberville and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene or will they get tired of all the losing and at least attempt a reformation.

“The future belongs to the people who understand they shouldn’t fight the last war,” said David Mowery, a Montgomery-based political consultant who has nudged Britt to run for president someday.

Regardless of Britt’s national ambitions, there was once a time when she’d be an obvious Capitol Hill comer, poised to accrue seniority, build alliances across the aisle and become a one-woman spending spigot for her state.

That’s what Southern lawmakers did. They’d come to Congress at a relatively young age and stay. And stay some more. To the point of near or total infirmity.

These figures knew that getting a seat on the Appropriations or Armed Services committees was the best way to gain clout for themselves in Washington and, in turn, secure their standing at home, never mind their criticism of an overweening federal government.

“There’s a reason all these military bases are still in the South,” quipped Byrne, the former Alabama congressman.

For much of the post-World War II period, the House Armed Services and Appropriations committees were run by Southerners — the military panel’s hearing room is named after Georgia’s Carl Vinson — and their presence was even more pronounced in the Senate.

As the journalist William S. White wrote in his 1950s-era account of the Senate, “Citadel,” the chamber’s Dixie domination represented “the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg.”

Figures like South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, along with Georgia’s Sam Nunn and Mississippi’s John C. Stennis, harnessed their seniority on the committees to deliver money for their states and gained job security in return.

That tradition has lingered into the 21st century. In fact, this is the first year in two decades that neither the chair nor the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee hasn’t been a Southerner.

It’s not that there’s much of a taboo in the party against spending — that flirtation went out with Trump’s arrival — it’s that earmarking doesn’t necessarily deliver the payoff it did before politics became shaped by the incentives of cable news and social-media tribalism.

There’s “less room for do-gooders,” as Todd Stacy, who runs an Alabama news site, put it.

But both Stacy and Byrne said Alabama state and community leaders, at least, are grateful to have Britt.

“I don’t want her to do anything national, selfishly,” said Byrne, who ran against Tuberville in the 2020 Senate primary. “We desperately need somebody like her in that Senate seat — she’s it for us as far as the Senate goes.”

For the moment, Britt is making the most of her seat.

Following the example of Shelby, who always sat on a gold mine of campaign dollars, she has, by far, the most money of any freshman senator; she’s organizing monthly dinners of the freshman Senate Republicans; and, yes, she’s inviting even more lawmakers to Alabama football games, including Democrats like Schatz, who’s never laid eyes on an SEC tailgate.

And another Senate Democrat has taken a liking to her.

Schumer, like Trump, has a relationship with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and invariably brings up Kraft when he sees the Britts. (When the couple first met with the Democratic leader, Schumer even got Kraft on the phone and passed it between the senator and the former Patriot.)

She impressed conservatives by confronting Attorney General Merrick Garland with evidence that U.S. marshals were discouraged from arresting protesters who may have been in violation of federal law outside the homes of Supreme Court justices last year. “That was a very high impact moment” right at the outset of her term, Cotton told me.

And she’s made an impression on Democrats, whether by taking food to her classmate Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) when he was hospitalized at Walter Reed or breaking bread with Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) at the Paris air show or by working with Schatz, Cotton and Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), all parents of school-age children, on a bill prohibiting kids under 13 from using social media.

It’s heartening, Schatz said, because it shows there’s still the potential for odd-bedfellow coalitions in the Senate and not just the same centrist “gangs” crafting legislation.

“There’s a misunderstanding nowadays that all the pragmatists are in the ideological middle,” he argued. “But when the Senate operated well it was left and right coming together — it was not just seven moderates having dinner and deciding everything.”