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Sexist comments followed by silence mar Alabama Senate race

Trump, congressman belittle female former Senate chief of staff

Alabama Senate hopeful Katie Britt, who served as chief of staff to Sen. Richard C. Shelby, was dismissed as an “assistant” by former President Donald Trump.
Alabama Senate hopeful Katie Britt, who served as chief of staff to Sen. Richard C. Shelby, was dismissed as an “assistant” by former President Donald Trump. (Screenshot/YouTube/Britt for Alabama)

ANALYSIS — While Republicans are still celebrating electing a record number of women to the House in 2020, former President Donald Trump and a sitting member of Congress have resorted to sexist attacks in a Senate primary that won’t take place for another 10 months. Yet no one seems to care enough to condemn the comments publicly.

Katie Britt is one of a handful of Alabama Republicans running to replace GOP Sen. Richard C. Shelby, her former boss, who is not seeking reelection. Britt clearly touched a nerve among her competitors when she raised $2.2 million in less than a month after entering the race. 

“I see that the RINO Senator from Alabama, close friend of Old Crow Mitch McConnell, Richard Shelby, is pushing hard to have his ‘assistant’ fight the great Mo Brooks for his Senate seat,” Trump said in a July 10 release, just a few days after Britt announced her second-quarter fundraising. “She is not in any way qualified and is certainly not what our Country needs or not what Alabama wants.” 

The ‘assistant’

Britt has compiled a serious résumé on and off Capitol Hill. The 37-year-old progressed from Shelby’s deputy press secretary to press secretary, earned her law degree and practiced law, then returned to the Hill as Shelby’s communications director and finally his chief of staff from 2016 to 2018. She was subsequently president and CEO of the Alabama Business Council before joining the Senate race. Calling Britt an “assistant” was clearly meant to belittle her. 

“I was called that and assumed to be that more times than I can count,” said former chief of staff Kristin Nicholson, who ascended to the top job with Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island at age 28. “But I never heard one of my male counterparts mistaken for a secretary.”

“No one thinks of their chief that way,” said former GOP Rep. Ryan A. Costello, who is considering a Senate run in Pennsylvania. “I guarantee she knows Senate procedure and the nature of the job better than Trump.”

Senate chiefs of staff are essentially chief operating officers of small businesses, managing dozens of aides and handling budgeting and human resources while overseeing public policy, constituent service and political messaging for the office. 

“A Senate chief these days is virtually a deputy senator. They do a lot of the machinations of a senator. They negotiate. They often talk with other senators,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation. “Current Senate chiefs of staff play a really big role in the process. There are only 100 of them in the United States of America.” 

It’s technically possible that Trump was simply harking back to before the 1990s, when the top aide in each member’s office held the title of administrative assistant. But let’s not overcomplicate things. As one longtime former chief put it to me, no one believes Trump was simply referring to old reports from the clerk of the House when talking about Britt.

It was an attack, in large part, because Trump has endorsed another candidate in the race: Brooks. And the congressman apparently couldn’t resist piling on.

“I get that Richard Shelby wants to bequeath Alabama’s Senate seat to his former, relatively inexperienced employee,” Brooks told Yellowhammer News, in response to a National Journal piece. “But U.S. Senate seats should never be inherited or bought, they should be earned and decided by the people of Alabama.”

There are at least two key ways we know the attacks by Trump and Brooks don’t really have to do with whether a chief of staff can get elected or serve well in Congress. Former chiefs have been elected and been members in good standing, and Trump endorsed a former Hill staffer last cycle with a shorter résumé.

Former Senate chief of staff Pete Olson, a Texas Republican, served in the House for a dozen years before retiring from Congress last cycle. And current GOP Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina is a former House chief of staff. (Hudson’s wife, Renee, is also a veteran chief of staff in her own right, currently working for GOP Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana and previously as chief of staff for White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.)

And while Trump called Britt “not in any way qualified,” he didn’t appear to have any qualms endorsing Republican Kat Cammack in 2020 when she successfully ran to succeed her former boss, Florida GOP Rep. Ted Yoho. Cammack was Yoho’s deputy chief of staff, which is an unquestionably more junior position than chief of staff in the Senate.

Bueller? Bueller?

So after Trump and Brooks leveled sexist broadsides that also dismissed Senate chiefs of any gender, why hasn’t anyone but Shelby really said anything about it?

“The problem is that the bar is so low across the board, that no one is surprised at what he said,” VIEW PAC executive director Julie Conway said about Trump’s “assistant” comment. “It makes me mad and it’s equally sad.” VIEW PAC, which focuses on electing Republican women, endorsed Britt early in this race. 

The combination of Trump’s continued influence within the party, the enduring reticence (even before Trump) among chiefs of staff to speak on the record, and former chiefs of staff bound by their current employer or client portfolio have all made it difficult to find any current or former chiefs who would openly condemn the comments, despite private consensus they were condescending and sexist.

“When I was a chief of staff, if my name appeared in print in anything other than the 50 Most Beautiful, I considered that a failure,” joked Dean Hingson, who was a top aide to former Indiana GOP Sen. Dan Coats. “We all know the landscape of today’s Republican Party. Anything that has to do with Trump is politically sensitive inside, and maybe, in your chief of staff role, it’s not something you want to be offering commentary on. It’s just going to be attributed to your boss, and senators themselves are loath to get into primary fights to begin with.”

At least Britt’s former boss is all-in for her. “She’s like family. She’d make a good candidate. She’s probably the best-qualified candidate to come along in a long time,” Shelby told Politico in June. After nearly 35 years in the Senate, he’s probably got a pretty good idea of what makes a good senator. 

Britt has her work cut out for her in the race. Trump’s endorsement is still powerful in a GOP primary (which should help Brooks), and she faces two other primary contenders: former Ambassador Lynda Blanchard, who put $5.1 million of her own money into the race, and 2020 House candidate Jessica Taylor. The GOP nomination is critical and even tantamount to winning the general election in a state Trump won by 26 points in 2020. The race is rated Solid Republican.

Even though Republicans are seeing another wave of women running for Congress, Britt’s experience is evidence that the party still has some work to do once the competitive races begin.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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