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Can Katie Britt Recover From Her State of the Union Debacle?
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Can Katie Britt Recover From Her State of the Union Debacle?

Being knocked off Donald Trump’s VP shortlist could be a blessing in disguise.

Sen. Katie Britt walks to a luncheon with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol on February 27, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

You only get to make a first impression once, and the perplexing thing about Sen. Katie Britt is that she had a lifelong track record of making great first impressions—until the Alabama Republican’s first encounter with tens of millions of Americans on March 7, following President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.

Britt’s melodramatic and cringe-inducing delivery of the GOP’s official response to the State of the Union was panned across the political spectrum, but until that point she had a reputation for being almost universally well-liked. “We’ve become friends since we first got here,” Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania told The Dispatch in the Capitol on March 6. “We’ve had dinner together. She visited me at Walter Reed, and she’s just great.” Other Democratic senators, including Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Peter Welch of Vermont, have also heaped praise on the 42-year-old freshman senator who has only been in office for 14 months. 

Britt had a leg up on her fellow freshmen because she began her career in the Senate as Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby’s press secretary, and, after working as a lawyer, returned to work as Shelby’s chief of staff. “She’s obviously not a newcomer to the Senate, even though she’s a new senator,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, told The Dispatch. “She knows the place extremely well and she’s able to hit the ground running. I think she’s fantastic.” 

Much of Britt’s strength in politics and legislating comes from doing what has become a lost art of politics—being likable, charismatic, and seeming to express a genuine interest in other people. “Katie has this ability to make you feel like you’re the most important person in the room,” Angi Horn Stalnaker, an Alabama political consultant, told The Dispatch.

Even more impressive than Britt’s ability to earn praise from across the aisle was the 2022 GOP primary campaign victory that paved her way to the Senate. In normal times, close ties to a retiring six-term GOP senator might only be a positive mark on a candidate’s résumé, but Shelby, as chairman of the appropriations committee, was the platonic ideal of an old establishment GOP senator. Britt was seeking the nomination in a Trumpified populist party against firebrand Mo Brooks, the Alabama GOP congressman who said in a speech across from the White House on January 6, 2021: “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass!”

Brooks started out the race with Donald Trump’s full endorsement, and a big lead over Britt in the polls. But from the moment Britt launched her uphill campaign, Mobile-based conservative columnist Quin Hillyer wrote that she was the candidate to watch. “She had an almost Reagan-like ability to bring big issues down to relatable levels,” Hillyer told The Dispatch. Britt struck Hillyer as a “hardworking, energetic, very approachable” candidate who “kept it real.” She emphasized her “Christian conservative values” and “made it sound like it was a very natural and important part of who she was,” Hillyer recalled, without “Bible-thumping.” By the spring of 2022, Brooks’ poll numbers had collapsed and Trump withdrew his endorsement, before eventually throwing it to Britt after she had already surged in the polls. Angi Horn Stalnaker pointed out that during her campaign Britt and her husband Wesley, a former University of Alabama and New England Patriots football player, traveled to all of Alabama’s 67 counties. By the time voting began, Stalnaker said, “people either knew Katie or knew somebody who knew Katie.” Britt’s victory in the 2022 GOP primary was a remarkable feat in a state that nominated far-right candidate Roy Moore in 2017. 

Britt’s ability to appeal to the various factions of the modern GOP has carried over from her Republican primary victory to her brief tenure in the Senate. “I sit next to her on the banking committee. I love Katie. And we’ve gotten along very well,” Sen. J.D. Vance, the populist Republican from Ohio, told The Dispatch. “I get the sense that she’s not necessarily where I am on the Ukraine question, but she’s also not necessarily where some of the old guard is either.” In September 2023, however, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Politico he thought Britt shared his hawkish foreign policy stance: “I’ve been impressed by her since the beginning, and I think she has a similar view.” Britt told Politico at the time that “an emboldened Russia is an emboldened China is an emboldened Iran.” But she voted this spring against advancing legislation that provided defensive aid to Ukraine and attributed her “no” vote to the fact that the supplemental bill fell outside the normal appropriations process.

The buzz about Britt peaked in January, when political commentator Mark Halperin wrote that “Trump will ultimately pick Alabama Senator Katie Britt as his running mate … The reaction has been universally positive, even from some members who don’t favor a second Trump term.” The day before the State of the Union, I asked Vance, another name rumored to be on Trump’s VP list, if he had any thoughts on Britt as VP or preferred another candidate. Vance responded with a hearty laugh. “I am not commenting on the VP politics,” he said. “I think Katie would be great.”

But then came Britt’s March 7 national audition after the State of the Union. She bombed, and her performance left even some of her admirers puzzled. “I was surprised that nobody told her in practice to tone it down and just be herself,” Quin Hillyer told The Dispatch. “She has a tendency to be too intense, even when she’s being real, and TV is a cool medium.”

“That was not the Katie Britt we have seen since she started running for office in 2021,” he added. “And it’s not the Katie Britt we saw when she was head of the Business Council of Alabama and COVID hit and she went to bat for small businesses.” Indeed, a video clip contrasting Britt’s normal manner of speech with her State of the Union response reveals a jarring stylistic difference. 

While Britt’s speech was mostly ridiculed on matters of style—veering from excessively cheerful to intensely angry in a way that didn’t seem authentic—she has also faced criticism on substance. In a section of her response in which she criticized Biden on immigration, Britt recounted the story of a migrant woman who told her that she had been sex-trafficked by drug cartels starting at the age of 12. Obviously, a person who is a woman now could not have been trafficked at the age of 12 during the Biden administration—she was trafficked during the Bush administration—but commentators accused Britt of insinuating Biden was to blame for this specific case. In a March 10 appearance on Fox News Sunday, Britt explicitly drove home the point she attempted to make in her March 7 remarks: The more human-trafficking there is, the more sex-trafficking there will be. “Human trafficking has gone up under President Biden. If you look back under 2018, it was a $500 million industry—human trafficking by the drug cartels. It is now a $13 billion industry,” Britt told Fox News host Shannon Bream.

Following her appearance on Fox News Sunday, Britt has mostly avoided the press this week. Her office declined interview requests from The Dispatch, and CNN’s indefatigable congressional reporter Manu Raju reported on Wednesday: “I’ve been trying to ask her questions, as most Hill reporters have over the last couple of days; she’s refused to answer questions.” 

But Britt did appear as a guest for nearly an hour on Sen. Ted Cruz’s podcast on Wednesday, where she laughed off some of the criticism and tried to defend herself without sounding too defensive. 

“The coolest thing is you’re played by Scarlett Johansson,” Cruz said of a Saturday Night Live opening segment mocking Britt. 

“I mean, how awesome is that?” Britt replied. 

“Katie, look, Scarlett Johansson is hot,” Cruz said. “SNL has come after me a bunch of times. They don’t ever have Tom Cruise play me.”

Britt laughed, adding that she was “actually was pretty pumped about” being portrayed by Johansson.

Later in the podcast, Britt recounted how she had been approached by McConnell and House Speaker Mike Johnson about delivering the State of the Union response. Britt noted that she had not yet delivered her maiden Senate speech—freshman senators traditionally wait at least several months before delivering their first speech—and made a reference to “the irony” that Johnson reassured her the speech wouldn’t damage her career. 

“The funny thing is,” Britt said, Speaker Johnson told her, “‘Don’t worry about, you know, people are gonna tell you horror stories about all of these things that happened, and people’s careers being blown up over it. … It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine.’”

Britt acknowledged: “Obviously, you know, I had a lot of passion, put a lot of heart and soul into it,” adding that the American people want a passionate voice.

Britt’s allies inside and outside the Senate have pointed to the blowback as a sign she’s the most feared potential VP candidate for Trump. Fellow Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, of Utah, tweeted on March 10: “In a good way, the delivery was over-the-top, out of character—Biden’s, of course. Katie Britt’s too. The media overreaction to hers not his tells us who liberals most fear as VP nominee.”

“It doesn’t matter how hyped up she got. It doesn’t matter if she was nervous,” said Stalnaker, the GOP consultant who has been friends with Britt for nearly a decade. “There was nothing she was going to do that they weren’t going to bash her for it.”

Trump himself praised Britt’s performance on Truth Social. “She was compassionate and caring, especially concerning Women and Women’s Issues,” Trump said, referring to Britt’s endorsement of Alabama’s blanket immunity for IVF providers. “Her conversation on Migrant Crime was powerful and insightful. Great job Katie!”

But it’s hard to see how Britt’s performance didn’t knock her down the VP shortlist, if not off it entirely. And it’s even harder to see how Britt’s current press-averse strategy will help her get the nod if she wants it. The key job of a vice-presidential nominee is serving as the presidential nominee’s surrogate, and that requires reaching diverse audiences. If Britt wants to quickly reintroduce herself to the nation as the person so widely liked by those who have actually met her, it’s going to require talking to more people than those who listen to Ted Cruz’s podcast and dealing with interviewers who are far tougher than a fellow GOP senator. In other words, Britt’s only way out of the current media firestorm may be through it.

Of course, some of Britt’s fans think it would all be for the best if she has fallen off of Trump’s shortlist. “The worst that could have happened to her would be to have been chosen for VP,” Quin Hillyer, the veteran Alabama-based conservative columnist and longtime Trump critic, told The Dispatch. “Nobody that works with Trump ends up unscathed. … After barely a year in office, to be considered for VP is premature anyway.”

“She has plenty of time to make a better impression,” Hillyer added. “Please remember this: In 1988, Bill Clinton was essentially booed off the stage at the Democratic National Convention. In 1992, he was their nominee. … This is not a death knell to Katie Brett’s rise, it might be a needed slowdown so she doesn’t get tarred with whatever craziness Trump has in store for the next four years.”

John McCormack is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was Washington correspondent at National Review and a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. When John is not reporting on politics and policy, he is probably enjoying life with his wife in northern Virginia or having fun visiting family in Wisconsin.