Sessions fights for political life in Alabama runoff
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) is fighting for his political future as he faces off against former Auburn University coach Tommy Tuberville in the Republican Senate runoff in Alabama on Tuesday.
Polling shows Sessions trailing Tuberville despite having served in the Senate for 20 years before becoming President Trump’s first attorney general. The winner will face Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.) in November, widely considered the most vulnerable Democrat running for reelection this year.
A survey conducted by the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Auburn University at Montgomery showed last week 47 percent of Republican voters in the state saying they would vote for Tuberville, with 31 percent saying they would back Sessions.
A loss for Sessions would be the first for the conservative politician, who played a big role in Alabama politics before falling out with Trump.
“Jeff is trying to hit a double bank shot. You just don’t see how he doesn’t come up short,” an Alabama Republican source told The Hill.
Sessions has faced a slew of attacks from Trump since 2017 when he recused himself from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Trump pushed him out from the nation’s top law enforcement post in 2018.
Trump again hit Sessions in a tweet last week, calling his former attorney general — the first sitting senator to endorse him in 2016 — a “disaster who has let us all down.”
Sessions fired back at Trump on Saturday, saying on Twitter that Alabama voters do not take cues from Washington in elections.
“I’ve taken the road less travelled. Not sought fame or fortune. 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,” Sessions said.
However, Trump’s animosity toward Sessions is benefiting Tuberville with the state’s Republican voters ahead of the runoff on Tuesday.
Trump has his highest state approval rating in Alabama, where 89 percent of potential GOP primary voters said they approved of the president, according to a Morning Consult tracking poll.
“It is going to be difficult for Sessions to overcome the president’s strong involvement in this primary,” said a Republican strategist familiar with the race. “He has probably a 95 percent approval rating among Republicans in Alabama, perhaps higher. A lot of acrimony is still fresh in the minds of those voters.”
Republican internal numbers have shown Tuberville with a consistent, double-digit lead. A GOP source told The Hill that they had not seen a “credible poll” with Sessions down by single digits.
The runoff comes months after the March primary, where Sessions received 31.6 percent of the Republican primary vote and Tuberville garnered 33.4 percent. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) came in third with 25 percent of the vote. The race resulted in a runoff that was delayed due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
The president, who formally backed Tuberville in March, has given the former coach ample face time. Tuberville accompanied Trump on Air Force One last month during a trip to Dallas. Additionally, Trump was supposed to travel to Sessions’s hometown of Mobile, Ala., to hold a rally for Tuberville, but the event was called off amid coronavirus concerns.
Trump’s endorsement notably resulted in the conservative group, Club for Growth, also endorsing Tuberville.
“It’s not so much that Trump is endorsing Tuberville,” Alabama-based GOP strategist Brent Buchanan told The Hill. “The endorsement works because people see them as similar people – brash, say it like it is, outsiders.”
“He’s the Hardee’s breakfast crowd candidate. It’s not a deep intellectual curiosity campaign,” said the Alabama GOP source, who referred to Tuberville as “Teflon Tommy.”
The appeal of having Trump’s support in Alabama has trickled down to the Republican House runoffs in the state as well.
Republican candidates Jerry Carl and Bill Hightower have both worked to align themselves closely with Trump in Alabama’s 1st District, while GOP candidates Barry Moore and Jeff Coleman have also worked to tie themselves to Trump in the 2nd District.
“The narrative of both of those races has been who’s the Trumpiest?” Buchanan said.
Tuberville’s campaign has largely kept a low profile in the run-up to Tuesday’s runoff.
“There’s an expression in politics: A candidate could go to a desert island and still win, and Tommy Tuberville might be the first candidate to test that theory,” the Alabama GOP source said. “He’s completely abdicated any sense of campaigning for a candidacy or platform. He’s been an invisible candidate for the past four months. He is testing that theory greatly.”
Sessions is a longtime staple of the Alabama political scene, who served as the state’s attorney general before representing it in the U.S. Senate for 20 years. On top of that, Sessions has never lost a race.
“He’s never had to fight. He loves policy, it’s who he is. He does not like politics, and he speaks logically,” Buchanan said. “Tuberville is doing well because he talks like a football coach. He speaks in stories that people can relate to, like ‘when you’re in the red zone, you don’t give up to the other side’ ”
Sessions has the support of the state’s Republican establishment, including longtime Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
“I like Sen. Sessions,” Shelby told reporters on Capitol Hill last week. “I’ve worked with him for years but you’ve got to run your own race.”
Despite the uphill battle for Sessions, one saving grace could be small turnout and that other House runoffs include the district in South Alabama where Sessions hails from, according to the Alabama GOP source.
Even then, however, Sessions could still face an uphill battle in the state’s 1st District, which is in the southern part of the state and is represented by Byrne, who gave up his seat to unsuccessfully run for Senate. Mobile County was the only county where Sessions outperformed Tuberville in March.
“You would think [the 1st District] would be naturally inclined to help Sessions,” Buchanan said. “He has only benefited by Mobile County. He actually loses the rest of the first district to Tuberville.”
The winner of the runoff will go on to face vulnerable Jones, making Tuesday’s runoff critical for Republicans. The Cook Political Report rates the seat as “Leans Republican.”
“This shows that candidates and campaigns matter, and storytelling always beats policy,” Buchanan said.
—Jordain Carney contributed.
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