A stinging rebuke by President Donald Trump, plus Trump’s endorsement of his election opponent, has left former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions scampering to stay alive in the Republican Senate primary runoff race — and prompting Sessions to write an open letter to Alabama voters, explaining many of his actions while serving as the head of the Department of Justice.
Sessions released his letter on Tuesday morning through his campaign website and in emails to the news media, in which he reiterated his support of Trump’s policies and again explained his decision to recuse himself from the investigation of the Trump campaign and allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“I have remained faithful to the President and his agenda. I have always stood up for him, and I never backed down, not even for one moment,” Sessions’ letter read. “My convictions are immovable, built on rock, not sand. … My principles, like my faith, are immovable and non-negotiable. I believe it is always right to do the right thing. My opponent, Tommy Tuberville, calls that weakness, which reveals his true lack of integrity.”
The statement goes on to recount many of the reasons Sessions recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation since he had been a part of the Trump campaign, and how he had supported Trump early on when most in the national Republican apparatus had cast their lots with establishment candidates.
The letter comes in the wake of Trump’s endorsement in March via Twitter of Tuberville, the former Auburn head football coach, as well as the president’s criticism of Sessions in an appearance on the Fox News morning show “Fox and Friends” last week.
Sessions was the first major elected official to endorse Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, at a time when Trump was not considered a contender. After Trump won the presidency, Sessions — a former federal and Alabama prosecutor — was picked to take the attorney general post but was heavily criticized by Trump and his supporters after Sessions’ recusal.
Reactions by prominent Alabama politicians and commentators has been mixed, partly along the lines of whether one is a part of the GOP establishment — typically favoring Sessions — or is an outsider, most of whom align with Tuberville.
Scott Beason, the former state senator from Gardendale who unsuccessfully ran for the Sixth District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, is now a talk-radio host on WYDE 92.5 FM and other Crawford Broadcasting stations. Both Sessions and Tuberville have appeared on his show regularly during the campaign, and Beason said that most Sessions’ letter reflected statements made on the radio program in the past.
“The letter didn’t really surprise me,” he said. “That is his biggest hurdle in the election. If he did not have the albatross of the president being against him, which is all a part of him being attorney general, I think he would be cruising to being elected to the Senate. He’s got to figure out how can he get over that, and he can’t unless he addresses it directly. I don’t know if the people of Alabama will absorb it all or believe it all or forgive him for some of the things, but I think from a political standpoint he has to come out with that, and probably has to continue beating that drum all the way through the runoff.”
Beason is not endorsing either candidate.
As one of the most widely read political columnists in the state, Steve Flowers — himself a former representative in the Alabama House — has seen a lot.
“In all my years in Alabama politics, I’ve never seen anyone write an open letter like that,” Flowers told BirminghamWatch. “Times are different, though. I don’t know how many people will read it, but it actually was a very well written explanation and assessment of the situation. But how people will receive it is questionable.”
Flowers agreed with Beason that the Sessions letter doesn’t really break any new ground about his positions on why he stepped aside from the Trump-Russia investigation.
“It clarifies it [his position] more, and goes into more detail and depth,” Flowers said. “In a 30-second spot, you really can’t explain fully why Trump doesn’t like you. That’s a disadvantage that he had, because all the average voter understands is that Trump doesn’t like him, but they didn’t know why. … It takes about three minutes to explain that whole scenario, and that’s what he’s trying to do in that letter. But the 5% percent of people who will actually read that letter are already on the same page with him, anyway.”
Tuberville led Sessions in the primary by about 1.6% but was well short of the clear majority needed to win the primary outright. The COVID-19 pandemic caused the runoff to be delayed from March 30 to July 14.
No polling from recognized organizations has been published since early March, but one poll taken March 6-8 by Cygnal Polling of Montgomery showed Tuberville leading Sessions 53% to 40%. The poll of 645 likely voters has a 3.86% margin of error. Another poll sponsored by the conservative-leaning website Yellowhammer News showed Tuberville ahead 49% to 38% among 400 likely voters, but with 12% undecided and 1% favoring neither candidate; the poll has a 5% margin of error. A third poll, taken on behalf of the Sessions campaign by OnMessage, shows the race in a dead heat at 45% each way, with a 3.46% margin of error.
Flowers said that he really doesn’t know where the race stands right now, given the lack of recent polling numbers, but the delay in the runoff date “accrues to Sessions’ advantage,” he said. “Tuberville had all the momentum, and Trump endorsed him the next day. … But with all the coronavirus stuff going on, no one is really paying any attention. My guess is that if you did a poll right now, they might be 50-50.”
Beason said that if the runoff were held today, Tuberville would probably win. But he agreed with Flowers that the extra campaign time afforded by the delay might benefit Sessions. “I think the election being put off until July gives Sessions a chance that he didn’t have to turn it around,” he said.
The winner of the runoff will go on to face Democratic incumbent Doug Jones, who won the seat in a special election in 2017 over former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore after Sessions resigned to become attorney general.