Trump looms as flashpoint in Alabama Senate battle

President TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE is looming over the Alabama Senate Republican primary even as he’s publicly kept his distance from the race.

As Republicans battle for their party’s Senate nomination, each is working to convince voters that he, and not his opponents, is the biggest supporter of the president, who remains wildly popular in the deep-red state.

The battle over who would be Trump’s greatest ally in the Senate is intensifying with just two weeks to go before the March 3 primary as campaigns try to win over a fervent base of Trump supporters. 

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“They’re each trying to speak to voters whose chief concern is Democrats and others who are constantly trying to thwart the president’s efforts. ... They want to make sure they’re electing someone who can serve as ally,” said a GOP strategist monitoring the race, adding that Trump is “intensely popular” in the state. 

The focus on Trump has sparked a firestorm of back-and-forth accusations among three leading GOP candidates: former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE, Rep. Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneTrump's Slovenia Ambassador Lynda Blanchard jumps into Alabama Senate race Mo Brooks expresses interest in running for Shelby's Senate seat Ex-Rep. Mike Conaway, former aide launch lobbying firm MORE (Ala.) and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville.

Whoever emerges as the Republican nominee will be heavily favored to win against Sen. Doug Jones, who’s widely seen as the most vulnerable Democratic senator facing reelection this year.

The attacks among the Republican challengers escalated in recent days, with each of the three launching a round of negative ads and jabs via social media, as they simultaneously look to brandish their own Trump credentials and to accuse their opponents of being soft in their support for the president.

Sessions went up with a new TV ad on Tuesday, titled “Desperate Attacks,” that said Byrne “stabbed Trump in the back” in 2016, referring to comments the congressman made after the “Access Hollywood” tape came to light, in which the now-president is heard making vulgar comments about women. Byrne initially called for Trump to step aside for Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceOfficers' powerful Capitol riot testimony underscores Pelosi's partisan blunder RealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Want to improve vaccine rates? Ask for this endorsement MORE, before saying he would support the GOP ticket.  

“When [Trump] ran for president, only one senator had the guts to support him - only ONE - me,” Sessions added in a tweet on Tuesday.

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Sessions’s ad came shortly after Tuberville went up with an ad attacking both Sessions and Byrne. 

Byrne, the former football coach said, called Trump “unfit” to be president, while Sessions “deserted President Trump, sticking us with the Russian witch hunt.”

The ad from Tuberville also seeks to tie Byrne and Sessions to Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE (Utah), the only GOP senator who voted to convict Trump on abuse of power during the impeachment trial — sparking a days-long lashing from Trump.

“Weak-kneed career politicians aren’t strong enough to stand” with Trump, Tuberville tweeted on Tuesday. 

Sessions fired back that Tuberville “chop blocked” Trump on issues like trade, immigration and veterans and that Trump “deserves support, not condemnation.”

Byrne, meanwhile, hit Sessions late last week in an ad titled “Fired” about his ouster as the attorney general. The ad also states “Hillary [Clinton] still ain’t in jail,” a possible dig at Sessions’s record as attorney general after “lock her up” became a common chant by Trump supporters.

Sessions entered the race with well-known baggage: He was ousted from the top Justice Department spot after Trump stewed and publicly lashed out at him for months over his decision to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign and Moscow’s 2016 election meddling.

And his opponents have seized on Trump’s public ill will to try to plant doubt in voters’ minds about how closely Sessions will hew to the president if he is returned to his old Senate seat.

Byrne, during a radio interview on Tuesday with WZRR, a local Alabama station, argued that unlike Sessions he will be on the president’s “team.” 

“I have proven that I will stand up and fight with the president on the things that matter for us,” he said. “Jeff wasn’t on the team. He walked off the field when the president needed him. ... If he thought he needed to recuse himself, he should have resigned.” 

Sessions addressed the elephant in the room during a Fox News interview in November where he announced his candidacy, saying that he “did the thing I had to do” under Justice Department rules even though it was “painful” for Trump. 

Sessions was Trump’s first, and most vocal, supporter in the Senate, emerging as a natural ally for the then-candidate over their shared skepticism for trade deals and their hard-line stances on immigration. Stephen MillerStephen MillerTrump to Pence on Jan. 6: 'You don't have the courage' 'Just say we won,' Giuliani told Trump aides on election night: book Stephen Miller contends no president dealt better hand than Biden MORE, Sessions’s former spokesman, is now a top Trump aide. 

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“I think he will respect my work,” Sessions added during the Fox News interview. 

Trump won more than 62 percent of the vote in Alabama in the 2016 presidential election, compared with Clinton’s 34 percent.

Though his approval in the state has decreased by 13 percentage points since he took office, Trump maintains a 60 percent approval rating in Alabama, according to Morning Consult.

But Jones managed to capture the seat in 2017 during a special election after Sessions resigned to become attorney general. Jones defeated Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoy Moore loses lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race Of inmates and asylums: Today's House Republicans make the John Birchers look quaint MORE, who faced multiple accusations of inappropriate sexual contact with teenage girls. Moore is running for the seat again, but he is polling well behind.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the March 3 primary, it will spark a runoff on March 31 between the top two contenders. Public polling has been scarce, but election watchers expect the race to go into overtime. 

A survey done by Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy and published by the Alabama Daily News found Sessions with 31 percent of the vote among Republicans, Tuberville with 29 percent and Byrne with 17 percent.

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A Byrne internal poll leaked to Yellowhammer News earlier this month found Sessions with 31 percent of the vote, compared to 26 percent for Byrne and 24 percent for Tuberville.

A wild card in the final weeks of the GOP primary is Trump. 

When Sessions got in the race late last year, pundits and fellow Republicans questioned if he could survive if Trump spent the primary repeatedly lashing out at him as part of their long-running feud over the Russia probe. As Sessions studied a potential bid last year, Trump called the decision to tap him to be attorney general his “biggest mistake.”

But Trump and his allies have largely stayed out of the race so far. A source familiar with the matter said that Trump is likely to stay out of the primary but that it wouldn’t be surprising if the president gets involved in a likely runoff to support whoever is running against Sessions.

Trump did give Byrne a recent shoutout during a post-impeachment press conference that Byrne and other GOP congressmen attended.

“He picked about a dozen of us from the House to be there. ... He and his staff don’t do that willy-nilly,” Byrne said during the radio interview on Tuesday. “I don’t make any apologies for putting out an ad where Donald Trump says ‘Bradley Byrne.’ ”

—Morgan Chalfant contributed