2020 election

With a Commanding Lead in Polls, Tuberville Shuns Media and Jones While Embracing Trump

Tommy Tuberville (Source: Facebook campaign page)

Tommy Tuberville has never run for political office in his life. But now he’s running for the United States Senate like he’s an incumbent.

He’s keeping his head down and avoiding mistakes.

If pre-election polling is correct, the game plan is working.

The Republican nominee has a large lead over U.S. Sen. Doug Jones in the handful of polls conducted for this race. A poll of registered voters by Auburn University at Montgomery pegged the former Auburn Tigers head football coach 12 percentage points ahead of Jones a month ago, and a Cyngal poll of likely voters this week had him 14 percentage points up. At this late stage, a double-digit deficit is hard for any candidate to overcome, particularly a Democrat in a staunchly Republican state.

Tuberville was more than willing to talk with almost anyone during the GOP primary against former Chief Justice Roy Moore, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne and Jeff Sessions, who resigned this same Senate seat to become attorney general under President Donald Trump. Tuberville was even more widely visible during the primary runoff against Sessions, who fell out of the mercurial Trump’s favor when he recused himself from supervising an investigation into Russian interference with the presidential race.

But since Tuberville handily defeated Sessions in the July runoff by a 3-to-2 margin, the Republican challenger has almost gone into hiding. His public appearances and comments have dwindled. The Tuberville campaign staff refuses or ignores questions from media, including BirminghamWatch. The candidate has made a handful of appearances on right-leaning talk-radio shows and had opinion pieces run on conservative websites, but little else.

In football parlance, Tuberville is running out the clock with a big lead.

Jones, on the other hand, has taken numerous opportunities to talk to voters and media, even if it is behind the barriers of cyberspace imposed by the pandemic. Online news conferences are a regular practice for the former federal prosecutor. They let him tell voters about his penchant for working with Republicans in the Senate. But they’ve also opened him up for criticism, such as when he said he would have voted against any Trump nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this close to the election.

Tuberville took Jones to task for that stance in a statement published Oct. 9 by Yellowhammer News, a conservative-leaning website. He wrote, “When it comes to giving fair consideration to President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Doug Jones is a lost ball in high cotton.”

In the few media interviews he has conducted since the pandemic-delayed runoff, such as one conducted two days after the runoff by WSFA in Montgomery, Tuberville has echoed traditional conservative themes such as opposition to abortion rights and gun control. He has doubled down on his loyalty to Trump, who remains hugely popular among the majority of Alabama voters and who endorsed him in the runoff.

Tuberville did appear on Talk 99.5 FM’s “Matt and Aunie Show” on Oct. 8, telling hosts Andrea Lindenberg and Matt Murphy that Jones’ attack on Sessions and Trump as pretending to support Christian values despite separating parents from their children at the border is “just the hypocrisy of the left.”

Tuberville has dodged efforts to take on Jones in a formal debate, even after saying in the WSFA interview in July that he would “maybe, probably” take part. Since then, Tuberville and his campaign staff have declined all invitations to a debate or forum where Jones would be present.

His main issues are a rendition of the conservative Republican top 10, but he rarely talks about those positions in detail. For instance, he’s a staunchly opposed to abortion, saying on his campaign website that “the current wave of infanticide sweeping across our nation (is) this generation’s holocaust.” But he doesn’t go into details such as whether he thinks there are any situations in which abortions should be allowed or whether he has an action plan.

His official position on gun control also gives no detail on his position except for saying, “Being a sportsman has always been a part of my life. That is why I will always vote to protect and preserve our Second Amendment rights.”

However, the National Association for Gun Rights went into more detail when it endorsed him in the general election. It said he had signed a pledge to oppose all gun controls, including bans on assault weapons and “red flag” proposals, which allow relatives or police to ask a judge to take away firearms from someone they fear may pose a danger to themselves or others. The association said he also pledged to champion legislation to make silencers legal.

He supports repealing Obamacare, calling it “a failed experiment” and urging “a return to the free market where companies compete for your business, while ensuring that pre-existing conditions are not a deterrent to obtaining quality insurance and care.”

Avoiding Attention Seems to Work for Tuberville

The Tuberville campaign tactic of avoiding the spotlight seems to be working well so far, said Dr. Ryan Williamson, an associate professor of political science at Auburn University who has closely followed his school’s former football coach in this election.

“It does seem a little unusual, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it surprising. Candidates always want to be able to craft their own narrative. The fundamentals are in Tuberville’s favor, so he doesn’t want to engage in debates and potentially open himself up to criticism,” Williams said. “He doesn’t want to cause a fumble.

“From Tuberville’s side, it’s been a pretty successful campaign, all things considered. Despite the president’s negative approval across the country, he still enjoys pretty strong support within the state of Alabama, so Tuberville has managed to hitch his wagon to Trump’s and let the fundamentals play to his favor in this election.”

Tuberville has tied his own political views and fortunes so closely to Trump that his own personality has not taken center stage, even though he has been a well-known figure in Alabama for almost two decades. That has surprised Williamson a bit.

“I haven’t seen (Tuberville) try to cultivate his own personal brand within the state,” Williamson said. “Certainly, he has an advantage in name recognition, if nothing else. That helps him overcome a lot of the disadvantage that we see from challengers typically in that they’re not very well-known quantities, whereas Tuberville already is. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t feel the need to stick his neck out too far, because people already recognize him.”

Criticism Over Financial Dealings

Even though he is a political newcomer, Tuberville has not escaped scrutiny of issues in his past. Both The New York Times and the Associated Press recently published lengthy stories about a hedge fund in which he was a partner with John David Stroud. Tuberville’s name was used to attract investors, while Stroud did most of the financial work.

State investigators later found that Stroud misappropriated investor funds for various unauthorized uses, including his personal expenses. Stroud was later charged by the Alabama Securities Commission, pleaded guilty in 2013 to investment fraud and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The Times said that, according to court filings, one of Stroud’s staffers said the hedge fund had “the optics of a Ponzi scheme.”

The Securities Commission determined that Tuberville was not complicit in the crimes but, instead, was another of the scheme’s victims and suffered significant financial losses as a result. However, he was sued by investors and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum in 2013.

Tuberville also was listed as one of the victims of another investment scheme headed by fellow college football coach Jim Donnan of the Georgia Bulldogs. An ESPN report listed Tuberville, who was coaching at Texas Tech at the time, and several other coaches as participants, including Barry Switzer of the University of Oklahoma and the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys; Dennis Franchione, then at Texas State and before that at the University of Alabama; and Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech.

In 2011, Donnan and his wife were accused by federal prosecutors of operating a company that was supposedly in the business of liquidating retail inventories but ended up being a Ponzi scheme that used money from new investors to pay off old ones. Donnan was found not guilty on all charges in 2014. Tuberville, who called Donnan “the recruiter” in comments to ESPN, lost about $150,000 in the scheme, the New York Times reported.

Jones’ camp also has criticized Tuberville for a charity he founded to benefit veterans in need, citing the low percentage of funds raised that went to charitable works. The Associated Press reported that the Tommy Tuberville Foundation’s federal tax documents showed that about one-third of the contributions raised by the foundation actually went to benefit veterans, though Tuberville’s campaign said the foundation directed more toward its mission than the tax records indicate.

So far, those accusations have gained little traction with voters, if the latest polling numbers are on target. Riding on Trump’s political coattails, Tuberville is on course to flip the Senate seat from Democratic control; it’s the only race in the nation where a change to Republican status seems likely as the party tries to hold on to a slim majority in the chamber.

Less of a Fundraiser

The biggest obstacle Tuberville might face is in campaign fund-raising, as his latest federal financial reports show contributions of $3.32 million in the past quarter. He entered October with $1.73 million in the bank.

On the other hand, Jones is flush with cash, raising $9.91 million in the past quarter and having $7.91 million headed into October.

Tuberville’s campaign has been quick to point out that many of Jones’ contributions came from liberal strongholds such as California and New York.

But the windfall has allowed Jones to run what Williamson calls “an impressively strong campaign,” given the obstacles he faces. “But one of the things we’ve learned in political science is when an incumbent starts spending a lot of money, that’s a bad sign,” he added.

Despite the disadvantage in campaign cash, Tuberville still is the heavy favorite to reclaim the Senate seat, if for no other reason than conservative voters greatly outnumber progressives in Alabama. For Jones to emerge victorious again would take another scenario like the scandals that plagued Moore three years ago — or as Williamson put it, “something absolutely catastrophic.”

“I think back to the 2017 special election (with) Roy Moore, an incredibly flawed candidate at best, and Doug Jones still only won by 1.6 percentage points. Now you’ve got the president at the top of the ticket, and Alabama’s one of only six states that still has the straight ticket option … where you can just pick all Republican or Democrat,” Williamson said. “For him to lose, it would take something vastly departing with what he has done so far — unless he did something to randomly ‘turn the ball over.’”