Republican senators open to comeback bid from Sessions

Republican senators open to comeback bid from Sessions
© Stefani Reynolds

GOP senators are predicting former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWhite House backs Stephen Miller amid white nationalist allegations The Hill's Campaign Report: Late bids surprise 2020 Democratic field Sessions vows to 'work for' Trump endorsement MORE could win back his old Senate seat in Alabama, even as deep divisions with President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE could throw a wild card into a potential comeback bid.

Sessions, who served in the Senate for decades before joining the Trump administration, is considering jumping into a crowded 2020 primary race for the chance to challenge Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). Though he remains deeply popular within Alabama, a Senate bid would likely put a spotlight on his corrosive relationship with Trump, who announced Sessions’s ousting via Twitter last year.

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But GOP senators — eager to win back the Senate seat from Democrats — believe Sessions would be a formidable candidate with a proven ability to win  statewide elections.

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOn The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings Overnight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule Lawmakers aim for agreement on top-line spending by next week MORE (R-Ala.) said on Wednesday he would endorse Sessions if the former attorney general declares his candidacy. Sessions has been publicly tightlipped about his plans, but Shelby said “a lot of indications point to him running.”

“He’s got to win it on the battlefield ... but if he runs, all indications are that he would win,” Shelby said.

Pressed on why he thinks Sessions would be a viable contender given Trump’s high-profile criticism, Shelby added that Sessions has “got a lot of goodwill down there.”

 “He’s been very popular in the state for a long time,” Shelby added.

Sessions has until next week to make a decision. The state’s filing deadline for the 2020 election is Nov. 8.

In the meantime, he’s been reaching out to the Alabama congressional delegation, including a phone call with Shelby, as he weighs whether to jump into the race. As of Tuesday, Sessions had not made contact with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy On The Money: Trump asks Supreme Court to block Dem subpoena for financial records | Kudlow 'very optimistic' for new NAFTA deal | House passes Ex-Im Bank bill opposed by Trump, McConnell Top House Democrats ask for review of DHS appointments MORE (R-Ky.) or the National Republican Senatorial Committee, according to a GOP source.

Senate Republicans argue Sessions would have plenty of support if he launches a campaign. Sessions was reelected with more than 97 percent of the vote in 2014. In 2008, the last time he had a Democratic opponent, he won with more than 63 percent of the vote.

Sessions already has nearly $2.6 million in his old campaign account, giving him a springboard to the level of funding that would be needed to win both the primary and the general election against Jones.

Republicans are eager to win back the seat after Jones eked out a victory during a 2017 special election. Republicans view Jones as the most vulnerable Democratic senator up for reelection next year. The Senate race is rated by The Cook Political Report as a toss-up.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Hillicon Valley: Twitter shares more details on political ad rules | Supreme Court takes up Google-Oracle fight | Pentagon chief defends Microsoft cloud contract House, Senate announce agreement on anti-robocall bill MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, heaped praise on Sessions, saying he had a “lot of experience and seniority” running campaigns and is “someone who I think could probably win in Alabama.” 

 “I think in the end it’s going to be dependent upon winning that seat,” Thune said Tuesday, when pressed on whether Sessions could win given Trump’s criticism. “And I think that the president will be very interested in having a Republican majority in the Senate. And if Sen. Sessions looks like the person that can move that seat into our column then I’m guessing that they’ll probably look past some of their differences.”

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Overnight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial MORE (Mo.), another member of GOP leadership, said Sessions would have “a broad base of support” in the Senate if he jumps into the race.

 “Nobody had better success in Alabama politics than Jeff Sessions or spent less money having that success in recent years,” Blunt said when asked if it was politically realistic to think Sessions could win despite Trump’s criticism.

Sessions served in the Senate for about 20 years before being confirmed in 2017 as Trump’s first attorney general.

The resurgence in GOP support for his potential return to the Senate comes even as he was frequently a gadfly within the Senate Republican caucus. He took hard-line positions on issues like trade and immigration that put him on the fringes but also made him an early ally for then-candidate Trump. Sessions was Trump’s first public supporter in the Senate.

Sessions campaigned for Trump in 2016 and was viewed as a potential vice president before ultimately being tapped to lead the Justice Department.

“He is a world-class legal mind and considered a truly great attorney general and U.S. attorney in the state of Alabama,” Trump said in November 2016 when he named Sessions as his attorney general. “Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him.”

But the relationship quickly soured after Sessions recused himself from oversight of the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump publicly fumed for months over Sessions’s decision. He later ousted him just days after the 2018 midterm elections.

Sessions has remained privately and publicly supportive of Trump since then. At a GOP fundraiser earlier this month, he said Trump was “relentlessly and actually honoring the promises he made to the American people.”

But Sessions’s potential primary opponents are warning he will face a public shellacking from Trump if he decides to run.

“The president has been very clear about his extreme displeasure with Jeff Sessions,” Rep. Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneSessions vows to 'work for' Trump endorsement Trump attends football game with Jeff Sessions' Alabama Senate race opponent Bradley Byrne The Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg looks to upend Democratic race MORE (R-Ala.), who is running for the seat, told The Hill. “For Jeff’s sake, and for the state of Alabama, I hope we don’t have to endure our very popular president at great public odds with Jeff.”

A GOP official acknowledged that a Sessions candidacy could be a wild card because of his relationship with Trump.

“Donald Trump is far more popular with Republican primary voters than Jeff Sessions,” the official said. “There’s a lot of hatred. ... He’s not one to let things go.”

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The president checked in on the status of the Alabama race during a fundraiser on Tuesday and mentioned the possibility of Sessions running for his old seat, though he didn’t attack the former attorney general, sources said.

Despite more than 11 months going by since Sessions’s firing, Trump has shown no signs of forgiving his former attorney general.

He lashed out at Sessions during an interview earlier this month, saying Sessions was a “total disaster” and “an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE (R-S.C.), a close ally of Trump’s, said whether Sessions makes it back to the Senate is up to Alabama voters, but “I thought he was a great senator.”

Asked if Sessions needed to work out his differences with Trump, Graham laughed before responding, “I’m having a hard time with my differences, so I’ll leave that up to him.” 

Shelby raised the prospect of a Sessions Senate bid with Trump earlier this year but told The Hill at the time that Trump was “not on board.”

Pressed on his earlier comments on Wednesday, Shelby said that Trump “has told a lot of people that.”

Scott Wong and Al Weaver contributed.