Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is fighting to reclaim his US Senate seat in Alabama in a GOP primary runoff against former Auburn University coach Tommy Tuberville, who has a major advantage with an endorsement from President Donald Trump.
Sessions was the first US senator to endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential race and was once a prominent figure in the Trump administration as the top official leading the Justice Department.
But he fell out of favor with the President and became a target of Trump’s attacks after he recused himself while serving as attorney general from the FBI probe into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
Sessions is trying to make a political comeback but is now an underdog in the fight for his old job after losing the support of the President.
The race advanced to a runoff after no candidate received more than 50% of the vote in a crowded GOP primary in March. Tuberville and Sessions made it to the runoff after ending up as the the top two finishers with Tuberville narrowly edging out Sessions for first place.
Whoever prevails on Tuesday will go on to face incumbent Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who pulled off an upset in the deep red state in a 2017 special election after Sessions left the Senate to serve in the Trump administration. Jones is widely viewed as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat facing reelection in 2020. As a result, the race is likely to be the Republican Party’s best pick-up opportunity of the year.
Sessions still commands a strong, conservative following, but throughout most of the runoff, Tuberville has led Sessions in the polls. Tuberville has repeated Trump’s slogans like “drain the swamp” and “build the wall” while reminding potential supporters of his winning tenure at Auburn from 1999 to 2008. Sessions, on the other hand, has tried to make an issue of Tuberville’s residency, calling him a “tourist” who moved from Florida to run for Senate and “an empty suit” who has hidden from the public.
Tuberville has hammered Sessions over the decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe, saying in one ad that he “quit on the President” and “failed Alabama.” In response, Sessions has touted his support of the President. In ads, Sessions has worn the red “Make America Great Again” hat. He has defended his recusal, saying that he “protected the rule of law” and contributed to Trump’s “exoneration,” while emphasizing that Alabama voters will have the final say in the race.
Sessions, who had a reputation as a conservative Republican and immigration hardliner in Congress, has highlighted endorsements from former Republican Senate colleagues, including Richard Shelby, who serves as the senior senator from Alabama.
But that may not be a match for losing the President’s endorsement.
Trump endorsed Tuberville in March, calling him a “REAL LEADER who will never let MAGA/KAG, or our Country, down!”
The President went after Sessions over the weekend, calling him “a disaster who has let us all down” in a tweet and saying, “We don’t want him back in Washington!”
Sessions pushed back, saying that Trump’s attack amounted to “juvenile insults.”
“I’ve taken the road less travelled. Not sought fame or fortune,” he tweeted in response. “My honor and integrity are far more important than these juvenile insults. Your scandal ridden candidate is too cowardly to debate. As you know, Alabama does not take orders from Washington.”
Trump may have hurt some of his credibility with Alabamans on Monday when he repeatedly referred to the University of Alabama’s head football coach Nick Saban by the wrong name during a call. As Trump praised Tuberville, he also lauded a football coach named Saban — just not the one who has secured five national championships for the state.
“Really successful coach,” Trump said of Tuberville. “Beat Alabama, like six in a row, but we won’t even mention that. As he said … because of that, maybe we got ’em Lou Saban … And he’s great, Lou Saban, what a great job he’s done.”
While Trump was correct in pointing out that Tuberville led Auburn to six straight wins over Alabama between 2002 and 2007, he may have been referring to Lou Saban, the former head coach of the Buffalo Bills in the 1960s who died in 2009.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has also created a wild card factor in the race. As a result of the outbreak, the date of the runoff was postponed from the end of March to July. The pandemic has also made it difficult to predict what turnout in the race will look like on Tuesday.