MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Seeking a political comeback, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to beat out ex-college football coach Tommy Tuberville in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff and reclaim the Alabama Senate seat he held for decades. To do that, Sessions also has to go through President Donald Trump.
Trump has endorsed Tuberville, whose name recognition comes from his time on the sidelines at Auburn University, and turned decisively against his former Cabinet member, making direct appeals for Alabama voters to reject Sessions’s candidacy. “Do not trust Jeff Sessions,” Trump tweeted this spring. “He let our Country down.”
The president weighed in again Saturday on Twitter, calling Tuberville “a winner who will never let you down” and castigating Sessions as “a disaster who has let us all down. We don’t want him back in Washington.” Sessions responded quickly: “My honor and integrity are far more important than these juvenile insults. … As you know, Alabama does not take orders from Washington.”
Sessions safely held the Senate seat for 20 years before resigning to lead Trump’s Justice Department. Their relationship soured after Sessions withdrew from the investigation of Russia interference in the 2016 presidential election, a move that infuriates Trump to this day. Sessions said he had no choice because he participated in Trump’s 2016 campaign and could have been a potential subject or witness.
He has asked voters to look past the feud. “I’m calling on the people of Alabama and I’m saying this. You know me. You know I can be trusted,” Sessions said during a campaign stop this past week.
“I have stood with you. I have advanced our values and I’m asking you now to stand with me and make sure that the seat from Alabama in the United States Senate is not a potted plant, not an empty suit and is somebody who knows the issues and will fight for them.”
The winner of the runoff will take on the incumbent, Democrat Doug Jones, in a race with major implications for Senate control.
Republicans are defending 25 of the 38 Senate seats in play this year. Democrats must gain at least three to capture the majority. It’s a difficult but achievable task as they also try to win back the White House. But their path becomes significantly steeper if Republicans are able to take the Alabama seat, which Jones captured in a 2017 special election contest that was upended by sexual misconduct allegations against the GOP nominee, Roy Moore.
On the offensive
In the weeks leading up to the runoff, Sessions has escalated his attacks on Tuberville, questioning both his involvement in a hedge fund in which Tuberville’s partner pleaded guilty to fraud and Tuberville’s handling of a case where a football player was accused of statutory rape. Tuberville’s campaign told The New York Times that his involvement in the hedge fund was a mistake that he has paid for, and has defended Tuberville’s handling of the player’s case.
Sessions has also derided Tuberville as a “tourist,” because he was until recently registered to vote in Florida.
A political newcomer, Tuberville is armed both with Trump’s endorsement and the state-wide name recognition that comes from the Auburn job. Believing he has a comfortable lead, Tuberville has turned to a familiar page in the football playbook, looking to run out the clock in the final days.
His campaign declined to make Tuberville available for an interview or disclose any of his appearances in the week leading up to the primary. He has declined Sessions’ multiple challenges to a debate, despite initially saying that he would participate.
“Jeff Sessions was a disaster. It’s time to send a message to Jeff Sessions that President Trump does not want him or his cronies in the swamp,” Tuberville wrote on Twitter last month.
Jack Campbell, a political consultant and talk radio host who supports Tuberville, said Trump’s disavowal of Sessions has become the chief issue of the campaign.
“It’s totally the Trump recusal issue,” Campbell said. “I think that’s it in a nutshell.”
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