WASHINGTON — Jeff Sessions wants you to know that President Donald Trump might hate him, but he doesn’t hate Donald Trump.
“When I left President Trump’s Cabinet, did I write a tell-all book? No. Did I go on CNN and attack the president? Nope. Have I said a cross word about our president? Not one time,” Sessions said in a video announcing his candidacy for the Senate.
Since Sessions announced he was running for his old Senate seat, he has spent much of his time trying to convince his former constituents that despite Trump’s repeated attacks against him — from calling him “slime” to “not mentally qualified” to “the biggest mistake” of his presidency — his feelings aren’t hurt. He’s still on Trump’s side.`
Alabamians might not be convinced.
Sessions was forced out as attorney general after months of public anger from Trump over his decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 campaign. This year, Sessions has found himself the underdog in the Republican nomination battle for the Senate seat he previously held for over 20 years, now occupied by Democrat Doug Jones.
Polls have consistently shown Sessions trailing former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, a political newcomer, in the GOP runoff Tuesday.
Sessions and Tuberville were forced into the runoff after neither won a majority in the March 3 primary, with Tuberville leading with 33.4 percent of the vote and Sessions coming in second at 31.6 percent. The runoff, initially scheduled for March 31, was pushed back more than three months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump stayed on the sidelines during the crowded primary, in which many candidates vied to demonstrate who was most loyal to him. (Trump was also encouraged to stay out of the race early on after an embarrassing blow in 2017 when he endorsed a losing candidate in the Republican primary.)
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But once Sessions and Tuberville were locked into the runoff, things changed. Trump offered his full support to Tuberville, ramped up his Twitter attacks against Sessions, invited Tuberville on Air Force One and even discussed holding a campaign rally in Alabama for Tuberville ahead of the runoff, although those plans were scrapped because of the coronavirus.
Alabama political strategists say it has been “bizarre” to see Sessions, who has a long history in Alabama politics (he was state attorney general before winning four Senate elections) struggle so much to clinch the nomination.
“There’s a large chunk of this voting public that voted for Sessions at least three or four times, and now they’re just throwing that all away, dumping him over the side, for the guy with no record that left the state,” said David Mowery, a political strategist based in Montgomery who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats. Tuberville moved on to coach college teams in Texas and Ohio after he resigned from Auburn after the 2008 season.
But as Tuberville adviser Perry Hooper Jr., Trump’s 2016 Alabama campaign co-chairman, put it: “The two most popular things in our state are Donald J. Trump and football — and not necessarily in that order.”
“The fact that the president has endorsed him [Tuberville] really makes him strong,” Hooper said. “People just did not appreciate that Jeff Sessions stepped aside and recused himself. There’s a lot of people here that just did not like that, and they’re upset about that, and they’ve dug in, and they’re for Tommy for that reason.”
David Hughes, a political science professor at Auburn University at Montgomery who is director of the UAM Poll initiative, said his research suggests that Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, a move Trump never forgave him for, “left a sour taste with Republican voters that they aren’t quite ready to get over.”
“Sessions knows that that’s his biggest vulnerability, and he’s tried consistently in his advertisements and out on the campaign trail to redefine the narrative that he was just doing his duty,” Hughes said, adding that that is hard to do when the president is constantly “fanning the flames.”
But Trump’s endorsement of Tuberville and his constant ridiculing of Sessions aren’t the whole picture. Alabamians have a history of bucking party leaders, most recently in 2017, when Republicans chose Roy Moore over Luther Strange, whom Trump had endorsed, to replace Sessions in the Senate. Moore ultimately lost to Jones in an upset win for Democrats.
Political strategists and party leaders say the power of Southeastern Conference football and the appeal of a political outsider can’t be overstated in Alabama.
Tuberville, 65, an Arkansas native who has never held elected office, was head coach at Auburn for more than 10 seasons, leading it to six straight victories over the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide (the fiercest rivalry in the SEC, if not all of college football) and overseeing an undefeated season in 2004.
“He has got great name recognition across the state,” Hughes said. “People remember him fondly from a time when Auburn football was successful, and people in the South really do take SEC football seriously.”
Sessions has tried to criticize Tuberville as being ill-prepared for Washington, saying at a recent campaign event that Tuberville “is not ready to take on the powerful forces in Washington that I have had to battle for many, many years.”
But many say Sessions’ criticism has fallen flat.
“The outsider is now who has the upper hand in every race these days,” Mowery said. “It’s hard to turn that into a negative in 2020 Republican primaries.”
Tuberville himself doesn’t come without baggage.
He has been criticized for his involvement in a fraud scandal a little more than a decade ago. His business partner was sentenced to 10 years in prison, while Tuberville entered a private settlement.
Some have also raised issues with reports that Tuberville suspended an Auburn football player initially charged with statutory rape for only one game, drawing unflattering parallels to Moore, who became the first Alabama Republican to lose to a Democrat in decades following reports that he had a long history of sexual misconduct toward teenage girls.
Either Republican candidate, however, will be a significant favorite in November. “Either way you slice it,” Hughes said, “it’s looking like it’s going to be an uphill slog for Jones.”