Illustration | Laura Mattei
Two familiar names will be on the Republican ballot for U.S. Senate in the runoff election July 14, although only one has experience in politics. According to former U.S. Senator and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his experience runs deep and he considers it an asset. But to his opponent, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, Sessions’ experience is toxic.
Sessions is attempting to regain the seat after he was forced out of President Donald Trump’s administration for recusing himself from a Justice Department investigation into whether or not Russia interfered with the 2016 election. Although considered a likely favorite when he entered the primary race late last year, Sessions has lagged in several polls after Trump subsequently expressed support for Tuberville in the runoff and mocked his former attorney general on Twitter.
But if the 2017 special election is any indication, an endorsement from Trump is not necessarily all it takes to win. Mired by decades-old allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was nonetheless endorsed by Trump. But although Alabama is overwhelmingly Republican, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Moore to become the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the state since 1992. The winner of this Republican runoff will face Jones in the general election Nov. 3.
Lately, amid low poll numbers and accusations Tuberville has not been properly vetted by the Republican Party or the national media, Sessions has been on the attack. In a conversation with Lagniappe last week, Sessions said his own record is “an open book.”
“[Tuberville] has not been vetted like I have,” he said. “It’s probably more important in his case because he was a total blank slate when he announced. We just know very little about his background, his philosophy and his political leanings and I think the people of Alabama need to know before they launch him into the Senate for a six-year term.”
Last week, national media rehashed stories from Tuberville’s past including a failed investment venture in which his business partner was sentenced to prison and Tuberville reached confidential civil settlements with defrauded investors. Tuberville also reportedly lost roughly $2 million of his own money in the venture.
Separately, Tuberville was criticized for imposing a one-game suspension on former Auburn wide receiver Clifton Robinson in 1999 after Robinson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Months before, Robinson had been indicted and arrested for second-degree rape after a 15-year-old girl testified they had sex. Tuberville distanced himself from the fraud scheme and, through a spokesman, declined to address the allegations regarding his handling of Robinson. Tuberville did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.
“It’s the kind of thing a serious candidate needs to address before asking for the people of Alabama’s vote,” Sessions said, noting Tuberville has also breached an earlier agreement among primary candidates to debate if the campaign extended into a runoff.
Meanwhile, Sessions also repeated a claim that Tuberville does not support Trump’s use of tariffs to negotiate trade with China, while accusing his opponent of failing to support American jobs and the “MAGA agenda.”
“He says I’m part of the swamp, which is the biggest lie of all,” Sessions said. “I stood up against Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the politically correct crowd, the national news media, the left wing academics and have been faithful to the people of Alabama.”
Asked for his thoughts on recent domestic issues including the pandemic, its resulting unemployment, and civil unrest after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, Sessions repeatedly shifted gears, drawing attention instead to inconsistent data or foreign influence. He did acknowledge efforts being made by the medical community to produce medications and vaccines to cure or prevent the virus, while also saying congressional financial aid packages were helpful, but abused.
In discussion with Lagniappe’s Jeff Poor on Huntsville’s WVNN radio in May, Tuberville said the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd was “a shame,” blaming mayors and governors for failing to act decisively.
Tuberville acknowledged the pandemic was “a problem” and suggested recovery was hindered by the absence of a middle class and shortcomings in education and the workforce. But he also didn’t provide any specific solutions.
“In all three of these areas — the pandemic, the economics and the civil unrest — we’ll work through it, but we’ve got to use our brains and stay behind our country and get on our hands and knees at night and pray that these things will work out the best for all of us because we’re all Americans,” Tuberville said.
Sessions also said he was “very disappointed” about decisions by the Supreme Court this term, which have affirmed protections for LGBTQ employees from sex discrimination, preserved abortion rights in Louisiana and maintained an Obama-era program protecting so-called Dreamers from deportation.
“When five unelected, lifetime members of the court start thinking they can just alter the meaning of words and statutes to advance what they believe the right policy is, then a great bridge has been crossed,” Sessions said. “The greatest threat to judicial independence and the rule of law in America, in my opinion, is if the people of this country come to believe that the courts are not following the law, but making up law. If that’s their own personal political agenda, then the Supreme Court is in big trouble, our justice system is in big trouble and I think they’re playing with fire.”
Sessions said he considered other professional options when he resigned from the Justice Department, but wasn’t interested in returning to the private sector. Instead, he’s interested in “waking up” the Republican Party to the struggles of the average American.
“They have to understand that half of America makes less than median income and millions of Americans are making $30,000 to $40,000 a year and struggling to get by, and a party that wants to govern has to have the support of more than half the people,” he said. “This party needs to listen to the American people and protect our manufacturing against unfair trade, end illegal immigration and to otherwise serve them and not the lobbyists and big contributors. There are still Republicans that don’t get it.”
The Sessions campaign has reported a total of $2.05 million in contributions this election cycle, including $1.6 million in individual contributions and $420,000 from committees. Tuberville has reported $2.9 million in individual contributions, plus $60,000 from committees.
Besides Trump, Tuberville has also received endorsements from the Alabama Farmers Federation, National Association for Gun Rights and Club for Growth, among others. Sessions has received support from Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby and other former colleagues in the Senate, the conservative Family Research Council and Eagle Forum, and last week a coalition of 500 Alabama military veterans.
“My opponent’s biggest lie is that I was part of the swamp,” Sessions said. “But where was he when I was the first senator to endorse Donald Trump, who was running against the swamp, breaking with establishment Republicans? He, on the other hand, has conducted himself in a way that suggests he would be part of the non-Trump agenda.”
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