Last November, Donald Trump won Alabama with 62.2 percent of the vote, besting Hillary Clinton by almost 27 points. The percentage of the vote Trump carried in the Yellowhammer State was the sixth-highest among his 2016 victories, behind Wyoming, West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Kentucky.
In March of last year, Trump won the Alabama Republican primary with 43 percent of the vote, despite facing 11 other candidates on the ballot. That 43 percent was more than double what his closest competitor, Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, was able to draw.
The 373,721 votes cast for Trump in that 2016 contest were more than any of the state’s previous primary winners earned in contested presidential primaries in recent memory. Consider the totals in the last four contested GOP primaries: 215,105 for Rick Santorum in 2012, 227,766 for Mike Huckabee in 2008, 171,077 for George W. Bush in 2000 and 160,097 for Bob Dole in 1996.
It is safe to say Trump is viewed favorably in the eyes of most Alabamians.
In fact, Alabamians’ overall view of Trump seems to be so positive that two of the three top contenders, Rep. Mo Brooks and Sen. Luther Strange, for the Republican Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate special election are all trying to show themselves to be the most pro-Trump.
However, Alabama voter enthusiasm for Trump could sour if he turns on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and forces him from his Cabinet post.
This scenario is not as unlikely as observers might have believed when Trump was elected. Last week, Trump blasted the attorney general in an interview with The New York Times for his decision to recuse himself from any investigations into the 2016 presidential election, including allegations of Russian involvement.
“Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else,” Trump told the paper.
At the time of his recusal, Sessions cited Department of Justice policy regarding political campaign investigations and said his involvement in Trump’s bid for the presidency meant he had to recuse himself.
Trump called Sessions’ move “very unfair.”
Reports of tension between Trump and Sessions had leaked out to the media over the past few months, but last week was the first time Trump publicly revealed his frustrations with Sessions’ decision.
Keep in mind, it’s not unusual for presidents and attorney generals to have tense relationships. Former President Bill Clinton had a similar relationship with his attorney general, Janet Reno.
Reno appointed the independent counsel who investigated Clinton for Whitewater, which ended up in impeachment proceedings against him. Clinton survived impeachment, but the independent counsel caused a lot of headaches for the Clinton administration.
The difference: Clinton never voiced his disapproval publicly.
What was Trump attempting to accomplish by attacking Sessions in the Times interview? Some speculate it was just Trump’s style. Others think he may have been trying to send Sessions a message, which is “get on board with the program or you’re out.”
Let’s assume it was the latter. If Trump were to fire Sessions as attorney general, what would that mean in Alabama?
The state would not shift from red to blue. Alabama would most certainly go for an incumbent Trump in the 2020 presidential contest, but it might dampen some of the enthusiasm. No longer would political candidates be fighting to see who could best secure Trump’s coattails.
In exchange for Sessions having a turn as U.S. Attorney General, Alabama would have lost a senator with seniority, which has been very beneficial for the state.
It also would be a serious blow for the brand of populism Sessions first embodied, and which Trump was able to harness and turn into a successful presidential run. Long before Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower in New York City to announce his bid in summer 2015, Sessions was spending hours on the Senate floor giving speeches about immigration, trade and welfare reform.
Before there was Trump’s border wall, there was Sessions fighting against the passage of so-called immigration reform in 2006 that would have given amnesty to an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
Alabama has certainly had its struggles dealing with illegal immigration. Remember HB 56? Until Trump, however, the problem was never the highest priority in the state’s presidential primaries.
But Trump, with Sessions’ aid, was able to take a Republican electorate in Alabama that had favored social-issue conservatives in prior GOP presidential primary contests and make it one that overwhelmingly rallied behind the banner of populism and nationalism.
Dismissal of Sessions from his Cabinet would likely tarnish the image of Trump in the Yellowhammer State, for sure.
On the other hand, Alabamians would be getting back arguably their highest-regarded politician, if not in its history then at least since George Wallace.
Sessions would certainly be a shoo-in for governor of Alabama in 2018. It is hard to imagine what a Gov. Jeff Sessions administration would look like in Montgomery given his focus on federal issues over the last 20 years as U.S. Senator.
However, we can look back at his record as Alabama attorney general and federal prosecutor before that. During his short time as state AG, he changed the culture of the Alabama attorney general’s office he inherited from Democrat Jimmy Evans.
Working in the Reagan Justice Department, he successfully prosecuted former Mobile Mayor Gary Greenough for corruption and crimes involving the siphoning of proceeds from the Mobile Municipal Auditorium.
If Trump did oust Sessions, it would be a blow for the populist iteration of the GOP, but it could be the state’s gain.
After all, Montgomery is arguably more broken than Washington. Even under unified GOP control, the prior governor left in disgrace, the former House speaker was convicted of public corruption and the chief justice — now a leading candidate for the U.S. Senate — was forced out of office.
Gov. Jeff Sessions for a term might be what the state needs to get the ship steered on the right course.