When you ask any of the GOP hopefuls for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat up for grabs next year what the top issue is that they hear about on the campaign trail, the answer you are most likely to get is something to do with immigration.
It might be the border wall, illegal immigrants, worker visas or language. That makes sense given President Donald Trump’s grandiose proclamations on the issue during the 2016 presidential campaign and his success in Alabama.
It would also make sense if all the U.S. Senate candidates parroted Trumpian lines on immigration policy, right?
That is not exactly how things are going.
Last week during a radio interview, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill dropped the forbidden codewords “comprehensive immigration reform.” He may not have meant “comprehensive immigration reform” as has been sold to us by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or business community. However, for a lot of people, the implied meaning is a legal status for low-skilled, imported labor that drives down wages.
Similarly, former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville had issues he had to answer for regarding immigration policy. Tuberville’s campaign hired a consultant with ties to a lobbying group that promotes an easing of restrictions on immigrant white-collar workers for Silicon Valley.
Tuberville has since downplayed the role of that consultant, but it has come up on the campaign trail.
The lesson here is not to leave any doubt about where you are on immigration policy. Say all you want about Russia, Ukraine, impeachment, abortion, football, Conecuh Sausage or the state transportation director.
We have all seen this play before as candidates vie for the mantle of being the Trump-iest. For any of these candidates, achieving peak Trump-dom is unobtainable. You are never going to quite achieve being a billionaire jetting around from campaign event to campaign event on a Boeing 757 and speaking to crowds in the thousands. Instead, as a U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, you’re hoping for 50 people at the Baldwin County Men’s Republican Breakfast Club.
Where you can mimic the president is on policy, specifically immigration policy. That is a winner.
Bear in mind, before Doug Jones and Luther Strange held the U.S. Senate seat that’s up in 2020, there was Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the architect of the modern populist road map Trump used to get elected in 2016.
For Republicans, having someone soft on immigration in Jeff Sessions’ old seat is unfathomable.
Some would not mind seeing Sessions make a return in the U.S. Senate in 2021, in particular, Sen. Richard Shelby. However, the prospect of Sessions making a late run at the U.S. Senate only to return to Washington, D.C., to reassume the role of neglected backbencher is slim.
While in the U.S. Senate, Sessions took the Senate floor for countless stem-winder speeches on immigration policy and how lax rules on immigration that benefited business interests hurt the average American.
He took immigration on from every angle, including the burden it put on the social safety net, which was a sorely needed voice during the presidency of Barack Obama. All of those efforts succeeded in Alabama in Sessions’ electoral efforts. In his 2014 reelection bid, Sessions ran unopposed to secure 97.25 percent of the vote.
Big deal, you might say. He was an incumbent in a heavily Republican state. Yes, but three years later a Democrat took that seat. Perhaps somewhere along Interstate 65, someone should have posted on a billboard the image of Jeff Sessions featuring the words: “Miss me yet?”
Would Sessions mention the virtues of comprehensive immigration reform, even if the term is used with a vague meaning? No.
Would he hire a lobbyist with ties to Silicon Valley for his campaign? No.
Here’s the deal: To become the next U.S. senator in Alabama, you have to win three very different elections: the primary, a primary runoff and the general election.
Perhaps you can skate by on name and name ID and popularity in the first round, which is the Republican primary.
The second round will be a far different election. The runoff four weeks after the March 3, 2020 Republican primary will be difficult regardless of who is the candidate.
It will likely be a low turnout event. There will be no Donald Trump on the ballot to incentivize some voters. The candidate with the best funding and ground game will have an advantage. Why give any freebies away, like the perception that as a U.S. senator you might be vulnerable to special interest influences on immigration?
Also, you will have to overcome what will be a likely runoff situation in two of the state’s congressional districts in Alabama’s first and second. That will push out the vote in the southern half of the state, and likely work in favor of U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne should he make the runoff.
Then, of course, there is the general election. Doug Jones is very beatable, but he will be well-funded given he is an incumbent U.S. senator.
In any of these three situations, voters will evaluate their choices based on stances on immigration.
When confronted on immigration, ask: What would Jeff Sessions do?
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