Jeff Sessions, bidding to take back the U.S. Senate seat he held for two decades, will face political newcomer and longtime college football coach Tommy Tuberville in a March 31 runoff for the Republican nomination for the position.
With the campaign revolving around which candidate is the stronger supporter of President Donald Trump, the president seemingly inserted himself into the race early Wednesday with a tweet criticizing Sessions.
“This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt,” Trump tweeted. “Recuses himself on FIRST DAY in office, and the Mueller Scam begins!”
Sessions was an early supporter of Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the president appointed Sessions as his first attorney general. When Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Trump responded with scathing criticism and forced him to resign.
Tuberville and Sessions led a field of seven candidates in Tuesday’s GOP primary election. Both immediately declared their loyalty to the president and his programs.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne of Fairhope placed third, followed by former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, Dothan community activist Ruth Page Nelson, state Rep. Arnold Mooney of Indian Springs, and Haleyville businessman Stanley Adair.
The winner of the runoff will face incumbent Democrat Doug Jones in the Nov. 3 general election. Jones, considered in Washington political circles to be the most vulnerable Democrat facing re-election to the Senate this year, won the seat by defeating Moore in a bitterly contested special election in December 2017.
Tuberville made a surprisingly strong showing to narrowly lead Sessions by about 2 percentage points. Unofficial figures reported by the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office, with all 67 counties reporting, showed Tuberville with 33.4% of the 1.18 million votes cast. Sessions had 31.6%, Byrne 24.9%, Moore 7.2%, Mooney and Nelson 1% each and Adair .9%.
The Republican Senate race attracted the most attention in Alabama even though Alabama was part of the Super Tuesday race toward the presidential nomination. Democrat Joe Biden took the state with 63.3% of the vote, far outdoing second-runner Bernie Sanders and his 16.5% of the vote. As expected, President Donald Trump may as well have been the only name on the Republican ballot, taking 96% of the vote.
Voter turnout in the state was about 33%, according to the Secretary of State’s website. Voting went smoothly in the state despite early fears that weather might interrupt, a spokeswoman for the office said.
Tuberville Predicts Victory in the Runoff
In the Senate race, Tuberville, who was football coach at Auburn University from 1999 to 2008, predicted he will win the runoff on March 31.
“We’re going to finish what President Trump started when he looked at Jeff Sessions from across the table and said, ‘You’re fired,’” Tuberville told cheering supporters. “And in 28 days, with your help and God’s grace, we’ll finish the job.
“Only one candidate in this race will support Donald Trump down the line,” he said. “Doug won’t. Jeff didn’t. But Tommy will.”
Sessions used a football analogy to characterize the coming four-week campaign.
“The beginning of President Trump’s second term gives us a window of opportunity that we dare not miss,” he said. “We must act with great urgency. This is not a drill. We must put our best team on the field. I’m not running for fame, I’m not running for money. I’m running to lead this charge.”
He also took a verbal shot at Tuberville’s talk about being a stronger supporter of the president.
“Anyone can say they are for the Trump agenda,” Sessions said. “But talk is cheap. I have fought on the great issues of our day and won. I have stood alone on facts and principles and won. Republicans in Washington are indeed too soft. Alabama must send someone to Washington who has the courage and the knowledge to get it done.”
Byrne, who gave up his south Alabama congressional seat to run for the Senate, thanked his supporters for their work, adding, “It didn’t get us over the top. That’s OK. The future for the state of Alabama, the future for America, is still in front of us. Let’s go continue to work for that and work for the good of everybody in this country and we will all be just fine.”
With the candidates agreeing on most major issues, the GOP primary campaign turned into a brawl over which of the group was the most ardent supporter of Trump. Sessions, Tuberville and Bryne spent millions of dollars flooding the airwaves with ads touting their fealty to the president and questioning how loyal their rivals are to him.
Sessions, 73, of Mobile, served in the Senate from 1997 to 2017, when he gave up the seat to become U.S. attorney general. A former Alabama attorney general and U.S. attorney, Sessions had been the first senator to back Trump for the presidency in 2016.
Sessions said during the campaign that he was loyal to the president, and that he had no choice but to recuse himself from the Russia probe because he had been part of the Trump campaign. During the recent campaign, he crisscrossed the state pledging his support for the president and noting that he never criticized Trump, even after being fired.
Tuberville, 65, had cast himself as a political outsider and the most loyal Trump supporter, at one point saying he believed God sent Trump to save the nation. Like Sessions and Byrne, he said he would back efforts to build a wall along the nation’s southern border and crack down on immigration.
Byrne, 65, of Fairhope, like Sessions, presented pictures of himself with Trump. He noted that the president mentioned him by name recently in thanking Republicans in Congress for supporting him through the impeachment process.
Byrne is a longtime political figure. He served on the state Board of Education in 1995-2003 and in the Alabama Senate in 2003-2007. He was chancellor of the Department of Postsecondary Education in 2007-2009, mounted an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2010, and has been a member of the House of Representatives since 2014.