Alabama political analysts say New Hampshire native and former Army aviator Mike Durant brings a compelling story to the U.S. Senate race but will need to spend a lot of money on advertising to build the statewide name recognition he needs to compete.
Durant, whose Army helicopter was shot down in Somalia in 1993 during the conflict depicted in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down,” announced Tuesday he is running for the seat that Sen. Richard Shelby will leave when he retires.
Durant, 60, is seeking the Republican nomination and joins a field that includes Congressman Mo Brooks of Huntsville, former Shelby chief of staff and Business Council of Alabama head Katie Britt, former ambassador to Slovenia in the Trump administration Lynda Blanchard, and businesswoman Jessica Taylor of Prattville. The primary is May 24.
Trump has endorsed Brooks. They shared the stage at Trump’s rally in Cullman in August.
Political commentator and former state legislator Steve Flowers said Durant’s candidacy has similarities to that of Jeremiah Denton, a Navy pilot who spent more than seven years as a POW after his plane was shot down on a bombing mission in North Vietnam in 1965. Denton endured beatings and received wide acclaim when he blinked his eyes to spell “torture” in Morse code during a TV interview his captors intended for propaganda, signaling to the public the brutal treatment inflicted on American POWs.
Denton’s book about his POW experience, “When Hell was in Session,” became a television movie. In 1980, Denton was elected as the first Republican senator from Alabama in the 20th century. He served one term, losing to Shelby in 1986.
Durant spent 11 days as a prisoner of war in Somalia after his helicopter was shot down and his crew was killed in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, part of a U.S. military intervention that started as a humanitarian effort to help Somalians suffering from famine and civil war.
“It reminds me very similarly to the Jeremiah Denton scenario in the 1980 Senate race,” Flowers said. “He rode (Ronald) Reagan’s coattails, was actually the first Republican senator since Reconstruction. Had the same scenario.
“This guy’s got a real hero story. He’s got a story that really, really will resonate with Alabamians if he spends the amount of money and puts that message out there.”
Durant, a Berlin, New Hampshire native, retired to Alabama after 22 years in the Army and built a company called Pinnacle Solutions that employs 500 people, according to his campaign. The Huntsville-based company does flight training and other work for the military.
“I’ve spent my life either in service to my nation or focused on growing a successful business in Alabama,” Durant said when he announced his candidacy Tuesday.
Flowers said Durant probably does not have the name recognition Denton had in 1980. But Flowers said Durant’s combination of a military and business careers will impress Republican voters if the candidate can make them aware of it, which Flowers said will take a hefty amount of campaign spending.
“This man has a complete resume,” Flowers said. “But again, it’s going to take a lot of money to tell that story. Now if he tells that story, it may resonate.”
Flowers said he believes Durant could take votes from Brooks if his candidacy does gain traction, partly because they are both from the Huntsville area.
Jess Brown, retired political science professor from Athens State University, said lack of name recognition is a problem for all the Senate candidates except Brooks.
“Mr. Durant as of today probably has very little effect because he has no name recognition with voters,” Brown said. “Mrs. Britt is starting to spend some money with electronic billboards and so forth. But with the exception of Brooks, all the others lack a name recognition.”
Brooks has drawn attention because of his association with Trump, including his speech at the January 6 Trump rally that preceded the riot at the Capitol. Much of that attention has been negative but will help Brooks in the Republican primary, Brown said.
“It may have given him a negative profile nationally, but it made him a bit of a hero among those die-hard Trump supporters,” Brown said.
Brown said he believes Brooks is the frontrunner and said Durant’s candidacy probably helps Brooks by adding to the field of lesser-known candidates.
“At this point, you’ve got Brooks and largely a sea of candidates who are unknown with the general voting public,” Brown said.
He said Britt is gaining name recognition and is well known among political insiders but still not with the public overall.
“For Bubba and Bubbette at the barbecue, Katie Britt is still an asterisk,” Brown said.
Brooks has a formula to win, Brown said, the same mix that carried Tommy Tuberville to victory in last year’s Senate race, the Trump endorsement and name recognition.
“The only danger I see for Mo Brooks is will Donald Trump suddenly appear not to be as committed to Brooks or appear to want to dance with another candidate in some way,” Brown said, mentioning that Trump didn’t help Luther Strange with his endorsement over Roy Moore in the special Senate election of 2017.
Trump softened the endorsement by saying Strange and Moore were both good men and that he was endorsing Strange because he thought he had a better chance in the general election. Trump said he would “campaign like hell,” for Moore if Moore defeated Strange, which Moore did. Moore later lost to Democrat Doug Jones.
Political consultant David Mowery of Montgomery said Durant’s path to winning is unclear in a field that has Brooks as the frontrunner and Britt as the leader in fundraising, with endorsements from Shelby, her former boss, and the Alabama Farmers Federation.
“He has a compelling story,” Mowery said. “But I don’t know what materially it does to the field because he doesn’t have name ID. And with Brooks already having the Trump endorsement and Britt sort of consolidating everybody else and the money people, it’s hard for me to figure out where his lane is.”
Mowery said there’s time for new developments to change the dynamics of the race, with the primary still seven months away, but it will take something substantial.
“If we think that it’s going to be a very contested primary, I think that there needs to be some kind of game- changing evidence that gets people to reconsider voting for Mo Brooks or not,” Mowery said. “And I think that is very difficult, because he can counter almost everything with, ‘Yeah but I got Trump’s endorsement’ because it’s a Republican primary environment.”
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