It only took a few days after the votes were cast in Alabama’s March 3 primary for the remaining candidates seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate to turn up the heat on one another.
Even before the primary results were certified, former Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions was defending himself from a new attack, but not from his opponent, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville. Instead, Sessions was responding to comments made by his former boss — President Donald J. Trump.
Trump, who has previously said appointing Sessions as AG was his biggest regret in his first term, criticized him again March 4 after it became clear Sessions would be facing Tuberville in a runoff for a seat he had held onto for 20 years with relative ease until he joined the president’s cabinet in 2017.
“This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States and then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down and end the phony Russia Witch Hunt,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Recused himself on FIRST DAY in office, and the Mueller Scam begins!”
Until that tweet, Trump had been uncharacteristically quiet about the primary despite his long history of public contempt for Sessions over his decision to recuse himself from overseeing an investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, which saw Trump take the White House.
One of Trump’s earliest and strongest supporters in 2016, Sessions has maintained he recused himself from overseeing the investigation because he was an advisor to the campaign. That explanation has never appeared to be enough for Trump, who ultimately pushed Sessions to resign as AG in 2018.
After the primary, Tuberville was quick to once again pounce on his opponent’s soured relationship with the president, releasing an ad that quotes Trump calling Sessions a “total disaster” and an “embarrassment to the state of Alabama.”
Sessions was quick to fire back, though. His campaign has recently targeted Tuberville for moving to Alabama to run for Senate in 2018 while continuing to keep a house and an active voter registration in the state of Florida. Under Alabama law, candidates only have to be a resident for one day to run for office.
Painting him as an “out-of-state, out-of-work football coach who doesn’t know Alabama,” the latest campaign ads have attacked Tuberville for his sudden interest in politics and for not supporting Trump during his 2016 campaign, verbally or financially. The ads call Tuberville “the Florida phony.”
Those competing ads are being paid for by campaign committees that are still well-funded after the primary. While the current funding is unclear, the most recent federal filings submitted in mid-February showed Tuberville ended the quarter with $1.1 million in the bank. Sessions, who amassed a significant warchest during his previous terms in the Senate, reported just north of $1.8 million around the same time.
The back and forth over who has, might gain or has lost Trump’s favor was a key point throughout the primary, and Dr. Bill Stewart, a professor emeritus in The University of Alabama’s political science department, believes that is not likely to change in the weeks leading up to the March 31 runoff election.
He told Lagniappe last week the contest will likely come down to “how much the voters think of Donald Trump” and how much weight they give the insults he’s hurled at Sessions. However, Stewart did note Trump, despite being very popular in Alabama, hasn’t had the best luck with endorsements here.
“We saw a few years ago when Trump was backing Luther Strange that it didn’t keep voters from voting for someone else … namely Roy Moore,” Stewart said. “I do think [Strange being appointed to the Senate by former Gov. Robert Bentley] was a negative for [Strange] at that time. The fact he was investigating Bentley when he was named to the Senate by him didn’t look right as far as many voters were concerned.”
If the race does come down to loyalty to Trump, the odds would appear to favor Tuberville — especially if Trump were to continue to pile insults on Sessions or formally endorse the former Auburn coach. Rep. Bradley Byrne’s, R-Fairhope, exit from the race could make things interesting if some of his supporters get behind Sessions.
Still a resident of Mobile, Sessions fared well in many of the seven counties Byrne carried in southwest Alabama. In all, the outgoing Congressman’s third-place finish secured 24.9 percent of the total votes cast across the state. That’s much more than Sessions needs to close in on the 2 percent lead Tuberville has.
In Mobile and Baldwin counties specifically, Tuberville finished third, earning around 10,000 votes to Sessions’ 25,000-plus. Byrne, who has represented the area in Washington since 2014, received close to 50,000 votes along the coast, but failed to make much of an impact north of Clarke County.
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