Scandal complicates replacing Jeff Sessions

Scandal complicates replacing Jeff Sessions

Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsIntel leaders: Collusion still open part of investigation Republicans jockey for position on immigration Biden to Alabama: No more extremist senators MORE’s (R-Ala.) likely confirmation to be the next attorney general means Alabama could soon have a vacant Senate seat for the first time in two decades.

If the Republican lawmaker is confirmed next week, embattled Gov. Robert Bentley (R) will appoint a successor to fill that seat until the 2018 election.

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The spotlight is on Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who had told the state’s legislature to suspend an impeachment probe into the governor, who’s been accused of misusing state funds and having an affair with a former aide.

While the governor has kept his cards close to the chest, Alabama strategists consider Strange to be the front-runner for both the appointment and the 2018 election, which he has already declared plans to run for.

But some have noted his chances could be hurt by the attention the governor’s scandal would draw to his appointment, since appointing Strange to the seat would give Bentley a chance to appoint the next attorney general.

The state’s Ethics Commission is reportedly wrapping up an investigation into possible ethics violations by Bentley and a former political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. Complaints were filed against them last year after allegations that Bentley had an affair with Mason.

The two have denied the affair and any illegal activity, despite the release of salacious recordings of the governor discussing his relationship with Mason. Still, Bentley apologized for making inappropriate comments to Mason after the recordings of his calls were released.

In November, Strange asked Alabama’s House Judiciary Committee to end an investigation into impeaching the governor because of “related work” in his own office. Strange has since clarified that his office never said it was investigating Bentley, instead explaining that he wanted the committee to pause its probe because it’s a “very public matter.”

“Luther Strange is in a very difficult position. He cannot really go out courting the governor very strongly for this position because it looks like he would get it to eliminate him from prosecuting the governor,” said Glen Browder, a former congressman and political science professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.

Browder added that Strange has navigated the tricky situation well by merely saying he’d accept the appointment if offered, while other strategists have noted the attorney general’s past experience of prosecuting and investigating lawmakers.

Strange has tamped down criticism that a possible appointment would be viewed as Bentley trying to prevent an investigation from the attorney general’s office.

“I’m not concerned about that,” Strange told AL.com. “If the governor would appoint me, he’d select someone for my place who would continue the legacy that I’ve established in [the attorney general’s office].”

Strange declined to comment to The Hill until Bentley makes an appointment.

While Strange, 63, has only held state-level office in Alabama, the attorney general is no stranger to the nation’s capital. He has done lobbying work for nearly two decades in Washington.

Serving as Alabama’s attorney general since 2011, Strange has been described by strategists as a “heavyweight” in investigations. His office notably oversaw the conviction of the state’s Republican then-Speaker of the House, although Strange recused himself from the investigation.

As attorney general, Strange has also overseen lawsuits against former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAll five living former presidents to attend hurricane relief concert Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Interior moves to delay Obama’s methane leak rule MORE’s administration, including a suit against public schools allowing transgender students to use bathrooms or locker rooms based on the gender they identify with.

Strategists in the state say Strange is well liked by the current administration. He’s been active in urging the Senate to confirm Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general and President Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Luther’s had a relationship with most of the movers and shakers in Washington, D.C. for two decades,” said Jonathan Gray, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Richard Shelby’s (R-Ala.) reelection campaign.

If someone else is appointed to serve in the Senate, Gray added that he doesn’t think it would overshadow Strange’s longtime D.C. connections. “I don’t think a year in the Senate is going to undo that,” Gray said.

Bentley has interviewed more than 20 candidates for the appointment, including Strange, several members of Congress, a pair of state Supreme Court justices and a handful of current and former state lawmakers. The governor has said he won’t reveal his pick for the Senate vacancy until “the day before” he makes the announcement, according to AL.com.

Other names being seriously considered for the appointment are Rep. Robert AderholtRobert Brown AderholtTrump launches all-out assault on Mueller probe Republicans rally around Sessions after Trump criticism GOP leaders are unified: Firing Mueller a bad idea MORE (R-Ala.), Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong GOP lawmaker pushes to end sports leagues' tax-exempt status Rep. Mo Brooks: We should end federal government support to NFL MORE (R-Ala.) and Jim Byard Jr., who serves in Bentley’s Cabinet as director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

As the state awaits Bentley’s appointment, possible contenders are looking to closely align themselves to Sessions.

Sessions has become a heavyweight in both Alabama and D.C. politics with a reputation for taking a hard line on immigration. As an early supporter of Trump during the presidential campaign, Sessions boosted his national profile and will run a powerful federal agency if confirmed.

Strange has touted his long friendship with Sessions, who endorsed Strange’s campaign for attorney general.

“It’s kind of like seven degrees of separation to Jeff Sessions,” Gray said. “Everyone’s trying to figure out in how many jumps can they make their jump to Jeff Sessions.”

If Bentley doesn’t pick the attorney general, strategists and political observers still predict Strange will have an inherent advantage in the 2018 race, though they warn not to discount whomever is named to fill the vacancy.

Bentley said holding off until the 2018 election, instead of holding a special election, gives the appointed senator time “to prove him or herself.” The appointee would get at least a year to serve in the upper chamber and could use it as an opportunity to build fundraising and higher name recognition.

“Two years in the Senate will make you a lot of friends … not just in Alabama but nationally,” said Bill Britt, editor of the nonpartisan Alabama Political Reporter. “I think whoever’s appointed, unless they’re very weak, would have a good shot at taking on Luther.”

Strategists point to Aderholt as a formidable opponent to Strange, though he has never mounted a statewide campaign. The congressman, who serves as the dean of Alabama’s congressional delegation, has asked Bentley to appoint him to Congress’s upper chamber, pointing to his two decades of legislative experience in Washington.

There’s also a push by some people in the state to appoint a woman to the seat, according to Britt. If a female candidate were appointed, that person would be the third woman to serve in the upper chamber in Alabama’s history.

Strange has interviewed Rep. Martha RobyMartha RobyBrooks’s prior attacks on Trump could hurt in Alabama Senate race How the GOP came to dominate, and be dominated by, rural voters House GOP not sold on Ryan’s tax reform plan MORE (R-Ala.), who recently won a surprisingly close reelection. But Roby, like Bentley, was critical of Trump during the campaign.

While Strange has a head start, observers caution that the dynamics of the race can still change over the next two years.

“I think he is certainly a front-runner, but two years in politics is a lifetime,” Britt said. “A lot of things can change.”