2020 election

Sessions-Tuberville Showdown Tops Tuesday’s GOP Runoff

Jeff Sessions kicked off a weeklong tour of Alabama last week with a visit to a farmer’s market in Pike Road, a small town 14 miles outside Montgomery. The event marked the beginning of a final campaign push for Sessions, who is locked in a heated battle to regain the U.S. Senate seat he held from 1997 to 2017.

The campaign has been an uphill battle for Sessions, to put it lightly. Polls have consistently shown him trailing his opponent, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, by as many as 20 points. Now, with the July 14 Republican runoff election just days away, Sessions is making his closing argument: that his opponent is “weak.”

“I say he is not ready to take on the powerful forces in Washington that I have had to battle for many years to defend America’s values and Alabama’s values against attack,” Sessions told onlookers in Pike Road, according to a report from the Montgomery Advertiser.

2020 Primary Runoff Voter Guide: Read about precautions being taken at the polls, predicted turnout, cross-over voting, candidates on the ballot and more voter information.

The attack may have been necessary if only because there’s very little to separate Sessions and Tuberville’s politics. Both are vehement conservatives, and both are vocal supporters of President Donald Trump. As with most post-2016 Republican campaigns, Trump has been the race’s central figure, as both candidates have raced to declare fealty and define themselves in relation to him.

But, unlike most post-2016 Republican campaigns, Trump has weighed in — and he has a strong preference.

“Alabama, do not trust Jeff Sessions,” Trump tweeted in May. “He let our Country down. That’s why I endorsed Coach Tommy Tuberville … the true supporter of our #MAGA agenda!”

Sessions and Trump

Senate candidate Jeff Sessions speaks in a Birmingham news conference on June 24, 2020. (Source: Sam Prickett)

The reportedly one-way animosity from Trump toward Sessions hasn’t always existed. Sessions was an early advocate for Trump in 2016 — he was the first sitting U.S. Senator to endorse him — and Trump rewarded him by appointing him attorney general. Twenty-two days after being confirmed, though, Sessions shattered his relationship with Trump by recusing himself from any Justice Department investigations of the Trump campaign and its alleged ties to Russia.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in a report published two years later, said his investigation did not find sufficient evidence of collusion involving Trump, though several Trump affiliates were indicted, and in some cases convicted, of other crimes discovered by investigators. Trump himself would later be impeached on charges of obstruction of justice.

The investigation was Trump’s sword of Damocles during his first years in office, and for that he blamed Sessions, eventually forcing him to resign in November 2018. When asked by Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd what his one “do-over” as president would be, Trump responded that he would not have appointed Sessions as attorney general.

That might have been better for Sessions’ political career, too. His U.S. Senate seat is now held by Democrat Doug Jones, who unexpectedly beat out embattled Republican Roy Moore in a December 2017 special election. Sessions’ popularity with Alabama Republicans has waned as well; he placed second in the state’s March 31 primary, narrowly trailing Tuberville but solidly beating out challengers including Moore and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne.

Tuberville’s Outsider Campaign

Trump’s endorsement doesn’t guarantee Tuberville a victory, even in a deep-red stronghold like Alabama. The president’s 2017 endorsement of Moore demonstrated some limitations on his influence on voters, but it has been a boon to Tuberville’s insurgent campaign, which has borrowed heavily from Trump’s political brand. Trump’s name shares equal billing on the candidate’s campaign bus, and Tuberville has described himself as “a conservative outsider who will have Trump’s back.”

That’s in contrast to “Washington insider” Sessions, who threw Trump “to the wolves” by recusing himself, Tuberville says.

Tommy Tuberville (Source: Facebook campaign site)

Much like Trump in 2016, Tuberville has promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington politics, something he claims only a “political outsider” such as himself can accomplish. Tuberville’s campaign ads have leaned heavily on his coaching career — including archival clips of Tuberville yelling at referees, as well as new footage of him speaking to the viewer from the set of a locker room.

“I’m not a career politician,” he says in one TV spot, filmed inside the cab of his pickup truck. “I’m really a politician’s worst nightmare. … I’m not looking for a career. I’m looking to help save this country with Donald J. Trump.”

Wearing a camouflage-print T-shirt and propping an uncocked rifle over his shoulder, Tuberville promises in another commercial to stand by Trump to “build the wall” and “crack down on illegal immigration” — both of which have been long-term goals for Sessions as well.

Sessions’ campaign has struggled to make its criticisms of Tuberville stick. In March, the campaign attempted to portray Tuberville, who owns several residential properties in Florida and voted there in 2018, as an out-of-stater. In the final weeks of the campaign, Sessions has turned to criticizing Tuberville’s past involvement with a fraudulent hedge fund. Tuberville claims he was a victim of the fraud; Sessions suggests he was complicit.

Despite his underdog status, Sessions received an endorsement from a significant conservative voice this week: Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, whose sway among Republicans is strong enough that there are rumblings of a 2024 presidential run.

Sessions appeared as a guest for a four-minute slot on Tuesday’s Tucker Carlson Tonight. Carlson was overwhelmingly supportive of Sessions — “Sincerely, you’re one of the few politicians I do respect” — and overwhelmingly critical of Tuberville — “He’s not as conservative as you are at all, he’s not from Alabama.”

“Why aren’t you crushing him?” Carlson asked Sessions. “It seems like the people you work for in Washington should revere you, and it seems like the voters in Alabama should support you.”

Sessions didn’t answer that question, but he did try out another attack on Tuberville, arguing that the former coach is a dangerous unknown quantity for Alabamians.

“If you won’t debate me or defend your values, then something is dangerous here,” he said. “Tommy Tuberville, at age 65 … had never given any contribution to any candidate. He never even said he was a Republican. We don’t know this man. He is an empty suit, a nubbin. … He doesn’t have the convictions and the courage to represent us.”

2020 Primary Runoff Voter Guide

BirminghamWatch has put together a packet of information to help you through the runoff election. It includes information about what’s on the ballot, candidate profiles, and a Q&A answering the most frequently asked voter questions. Also coming this week is a rundown of the fierce battle between Tuberville and Sessions to win the Republican nomination to the Senate.

2020 Primary Runoff Voter Guide: Your Source of Information for the July 14 Election

What’s on the Ballot?

Candidate Profiles

Voters’ Toolbox for July 14 Primary Runoffs