Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama

Alabama’s GOP Senate runoff between former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence FBI officials hid copies of Russia probe documents fearing Trump interference: book Tuberville breaks DC self-quarantine policy to campaign MORE and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville is heating up with less than five weeks to go before the July 14 contest. 

Since no contender broke 50 percent in the March primary, which Tuberville won by less than 2 points, the top two candidates are fighting into the summer to win the nomination to take on Sen. Doug Jones, the most vulnerable Senate Democrat up for reelection this year.

The race, which takes place in President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE's direct shadow, is swiftly morphing into a bare-knuckle brawl.

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Sessions, who served as an Alabama senator for 20 years before joining the Trump administration, has started ratcheting up the rhetoric against Tuberville, challenging him to a series of debates, opening new lines of attack on his policies and defending in stronger terms his 2017 decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into Russia's election meddling. 

Meanwhile, Tuberville has maintained his biting attacks on that recusal, accusing Sessions of betraying the president, who is firmly in Tuberville's corner and has said Sessions would be his only "do-over" since taking office.

“I think you see a pickup in this kind of campaigning because you’ve got a certain amount of time left to get in front of voters and make your case and create a contrast between Sen. Sessions and Tuberville,” said Gail Gitcho, a senior adviser to Sessions.

Sessions has spearheaded his offensive by hammering Tuberville over what he says is an unwillingness to debate, egging him on in increasingly personal terms.

He tweeted last week that Tuberville "should man up and face his fears," promising "to use small one-syllable words in a debate."

"But he won’t debate because he knows almost nothing about Alabama or the critical issues our great nation faces!" Sessions said.

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The former attorney general has also unleashed an avalanche of criticism on Tuberville’s policies, accusing the former coach of being soft on China and having ties to social media companies while citing past remarks saying immigrants should be allowed in the country to boost the economy to suggest he’s “pro-amnesty.” And he’s made hay of the fact that Tuberville moved to Florida after leaving Auburn University.

“Tuberville’s a phony. He’s not from Alabama, he lives and votes in Florida. When this campaign is over, he’ll go back to Florida,” a narrator says in the only ad Sessions has released since the primary, according to Advertising Analytics.

Sessions’s campaign is confident its ramped up offensive will be effective now that the primary race has whittled down to two candidates.

“Obviously, it’s easier to contrast when you have just one other person,” Gitcho said.

But Tuberville has been laying it on for months, knocking Sessions on China, immigration and more. And he’s focused most of his ire on Sessions’s recusal, a hot-button issue in a state that went for Trump by almost 30 points in 2016.

“Jeff Sessions quit on the president, and he failed Alabama,” he said in an ad last month. “I’ll always have President Trump’s back. We’ll drain the swamp, build the wall, no amnesty ever.”

Sessions has defended his 2017 decision in increasingly blunt terms, saying Trump is "damn fortunate" he made the call, and allies say opinions over it are baked in among the electorate. But strategists say messaging on the issue could be a potent reminder of Sessions and Trump’s brutal falling out, which could hinder Sessions’s effectiveness as a senator.

“I really think that embedding it into the brain that you want to send a senator who’s going to be able to work with the president, that’s what people in Alabama want, someone to represent them well and work with the president,” said an Alabama Republican operative. “I absolutely would not change messaging on that if I was on [Tuberville’s] campaign.” 

Tuberville's campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Sessions has a long history in Alabama, winning four Senate elections after a stint as state attorney general. He was reelected with more than 97 percent of the vote in 2014 after Democrats failed to field a candidate.

In 2015, he became the first sitting senator to endorse Trump's presidential bid, and he served as a regular campaign surrogate before being appointed to lead the Justice Department after Trump's election. 

But Trump has never forgiven Sessions for his Russian probe recusal, which he blamed directly for the appointment of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE. In the months since the March primary, Trump has blasted Sessions as a "disaster" who was "not mentally qualified to be attorney general."

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Sessions does appear to be heading into the homestretch of the race on his back foot.

A poll from the conservative firm Cygnal found Tuberville leading by about 23 points, though the former attorney general’s campaign disputes the accuracy of that survey. An internal poll from Sessions's campaign released Thursday shows him trailing Tuberville by 6 points.

Tuberville, a political neophyte, has plenty of name recognition in the state from his time as head coach at Auburn, though fans of arch rival University of Alabama may not remember him so fondly, particularly after his six straight wins in the two teams' annual Iron Bowl matchup, a record for the Tigers.

Tuberville has scoffed at the idea that Crimson Tide fans will never support him, saying in an interview last year that "people like winners."

"Who would have thought Alabama fans would vote for a guy from Auburn for a political position? I’m going to get a lot of Alabama votes because they know I did something that’s hard to do — it’s coach college football," he said on ESPN radio.

And while Tuberville’s campaign has been outspent by Sessions by about $85,000, it has been boosted by over $717,000 spent on his behalf by the conservative Club for Growth, according to Advertising Analytics. 

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“If you even rewind before Jeff Sessions got into the race, I think a lot of people there would tell you that this state was behind coach from the beginning and it’s going to continue to be behind coach,” the Alabama strategist told The Hill. “I do think coach is going to win by a pretty good margin.”

Sessions’s standing could be a cautionary tale to Republicans across the country, serving as yet another example that crossing Trump can doom one’s electoral prospects.

Trump has already helped sink the careers of a number of GOP politicians, such as former Sens. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama MORE (Tenn.) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism MORE (Ariz.) and former Rep. Mark SanfordMark SanfordCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama The Memo: Can the Never Trumpers succeed? MORE (S.C.), including threatening to campaign against them or endorsing a primary challenger. Corker and Flake retired rather than face grueling reelection bids, and Sanford was ousted by a Trump-backed GOP opponent.

Raising the stakes in Alabama is a political landscape that means whoever wins the runoff will be favored against Jones, who won the special election to fill Sessions's old after his chief opponent, former state Chief Justice Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreSessions hits back at Trump days ahead of Alabama Senate runoff Judge allows Roy Moore lawsuit over Sacha Baron Cohen prank to proceed Senate outlook slides for GOP MORE, faced a slew of sexual misconduct allegations. Unless Jones pulls an upset in November, the July 14 vote could effectively decide Alabama's next senator.

“We’re [five] weeks out, it’s getting closer to the finish line. I don’t think the political climate is going to change that much. I think both ends of the ball have gone pretty negative on each other and you’re going to continue to see them beat that same drum,” the Alabama operative said. “I think they’re going to continue to beat those drums that they’re already on.”