MONTGOMERY — Tommy Tuberville does not care about your need for nuance.
In a political landscape where tricky issues can sometimes cause politicians to split hairs on policy, the former football coach and current candidate for U.S. Senate has found a winning formula: be blunt, keep it simple and always pivot back to President Donald Trump.
Though seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Alabama is Tuberville’s first foray into elected government, politics was always part of his job in the 20 years he spent as a head coach at big-time college football programs. During his 10-year stint at Auburn, Tuberville was known for deftly handling the media, sometimes by answering the question he wanted to answer, rather than what had been asked.
Staying on message and avoiding the weeds of an issue is a well-proven skill for politicians, and having advanced practice at it has made Tuberville a dangerous competitor in this GOP Senate race.
And yet it is the pesky particulars on which Tuberville’s opponents are honing in to attack him, specifically on the issue of immigration. In a speech to the Shoals Republican Club in August, Tuberville discussed the need to build a wall on the southern border and tighten up immigration enforcement so that the U.S. can “know who’s here.”
As far as Republican speeches in Alabama go, that’s pretty much par for the course. However, it was Tuberville’s discussing what comes next that seemed to get him into trouble.
“There are people coming across the border that need jobs, okay, and we want them to come over here. We just need to know who’s here, okay?” he said. “Put the wall up, then we let them come in and become citizens like we all became citizens.”
Partial audio of that quote has been running on repeat over the Alabama airwaves, courtesy of Tuberville’s top opponents, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and 1st District Congressman Bradley Byrne, as well as at least one super PAC. They accuse Tuberville of supporting “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
Undeterred, Tuberville quickly called the attack “fake news” and his campaign shot right back in ads attacking Byrne and Sessions.
Sound familiar? Ever the clever coach, Tuberville has co-opted the Trump playbook.
When we sat down for an interview recently inside the Kress Building in downtown Montgomery, I wanted to ask Tuberville about the topic of illegal immigration, both to give him an opportunity to respond to his critics and discover what his actual views are given the back-and-forth. And while he talked about the issue at length, being sure, of course, to denounce amnesty, there wasn’t much actual policy. Rather, what Tuberville has on immigration is what he has on most policy issues: a general, visceral feeling that the way the country has been doing things is wrong and that the current crop of politicians is to blame. And guess who has all the answers?
Be blunt, keep it simple and always pivot back to Donald Trump.
And while such a non-nuanced way of answering might frustrate the devil out of seasoned politicians, it’s exactly what has made him an effective candidate in this race. Why? Because he talks about issues the way normal people do. Voters once greatly valued expertise and experience in their elected leaders, but many now find those qualities to be a vice and their absence a virtue.
As the race enters its final week, Tuberville is well-positioned to make a potential runoff. Should no candidate finish with more than 50% of the vote in the March 3 primary election, the top two voter earners would go to a runoff scheduled for March 31. Most polls, including a recent Alabama Daily News / Mason-Dixon poll, show the former coach a close second place to Sessions in ballot test scenarios.
Here’s the full interview via the latest episode of “In the Weeds” with Alabama Daily News. A full transcript is below.
Todd Stacy All right, Coach, thanks for coming “In the Weeds.” You’re on the campaign trail. How’s it going?
Tommy Tuberville It’s going good. It’s been a long 11 months, I’ll tell you that, because, you know, when I got in it, you know, I’m like a football coach: you’re gonna go at full speed. You know, you don’t know how to do half speed or halfway do it and so I hit the ground running, I guess about 11 months ago with me and a cell phone and no money in the bank, you know, towards a campaign. And it’s really going good. We put together a good, good team. And a lot of people told me when I first got started they said, coach, this is just like being a head coach. You’re only as good as a team around you. And I mean, you got to have I would say today I probably got 15 people. You know, that has some kind of responsibility and they got to do it right. And they’ve got to be consistent. But, you know, it’s all come together. And, you know, I’ve really enjoyed it. I met a lot of good people, made a lot of new friends, traveled the entire state many times. And as I tell people, I used to fly around and now I’ve been driving around and, you know, hit all those smaller communities. And I’ve eaten at a lot of barbecue places and catfish places and a lot of cornbread.
TS Well, why do you want to be a United States Senator? What got this whole thing started?
TT Well, my dad was in the military. He quit high school in 10th grade and was 16 years old, lied about his age. And then at 18, he landed in Normandy and drove a tank all the way across Europe, five Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. Stayed in the military to age 53 and passed away from a massive heart attack on a training mission. And then my brother was in the military and I barely missed Vietnam. When I turned 18, I had a draft number, but they didn’t have a draft that year because Vietnam was coming to a close. So 40 years or 45 years later, I haven’t given back. You know, I love the country and we’ve got the greatest country on the face of the earth. And so I want to give back.
My wife knew that when I got out coaching, she said she should have figured you’d try to get in some kind of politics. And, you know, I saw that we elected a Democratic senator in this state and he’s not representing the state like the majority of people want to be represented. He’s not helping President Trump. So, I said I can do this because I’ve got name recognition. It’s hard to beat the swamp. It’s hard to beat the establishment. But I’ve got an opportunity, not because of Tommy Tuberville, because of me being a coach in this state and people know who I am. So I want to give back. I’m well qualified. I know the problems of this state and country, you know? Been in schools and businesses and homes all across the country.
And I know our drug problems or mental health problems. We’ve got a lot of problems. Now, we’ve got a great country, but we’ve been on autopilot now for about 30, 40 years. And that autopilot’s about burnt out. And we’ve got a socialist coming after us hard because the swamp in Washington, D.C., has just kicked the can down the road. Fortunately, we’ve got a guy named Donald Trump that was elected. He’s totally different. He’s like me. He’s an outsider. He’s been in the business world. He knows what’s going on. And he’s been kicking them around up there telling them we’re gonna get something done while I’m here. Now, they’ve been resisting on both sides. But I’d say I’m proud of what he’s done, how he’s done it. He works hard, got a great work ethic. You know, he competes. And we needed that. We needed that in this country.
TS When you get in the race, you knew that it was going to be Bradley Byrne. You knew it was Byrne, Roy Moore and a handful of others. You didn’t know it was gonna be Jeff Sessions. When he got in, I guess in July, it kind of changed the dynamics of the race. How has it changed it in your eyes?
TT Well, it really hadn’t changed it much. It probably gave me an opportunity to compete against somebody. That is one of the reasons I ran because I’m a Donald Trump guy. I didn’t sleep for about a week after he got elected, excited because I knew that he would work hard. Now, I didn’t know he would be this successful this quick, even without any help. Very little help. And in Washington, D.C., but then he gets elected and then Senator Sessions becomes attorney general. And in 12 days, he quits on the president and he allowed all the swamp lawyers from the left to go in and kind of circle him. And they’d been beaten on him for about three years and fortunately I think he’s about to get out of it. But he and Paul Ryan were two of the big reasons I got in. And Paul Ryan basically quit on the Republican Party, and on the country after one year. He’s Speaker of the House and I’m just thinking, you know, we’ve got a great opportunity to get this country back on track after eight terrible years of the Obama regime, and then all of a sudden we’ve got all these people quitting on our president, the guy that we duly elected. And so it’s pretty ironic now that Jeff Sessions has gotten back in this race. It really even energized me even more than, hey, you know, when another swamp guy trying to get back in. President Trump kicked him out, but he’s trying to flop back into the swamp. And so it’s made me work that much harder.
TS You’re running as a political outsider, right? That’s your message?
TT Citizen legislator is what I call it. And that’s pretty much it.
TS OK, that’s right. Yeah. Let’s just flash forward and you’re elected and you’re a United States Senator in the Capitol. And as much as it is the swamp and everything, it is also an insider’s game. And in some ways, to be effective, you’ve got to be able to play the game. So as a political outsider, how do you reconcile that?
TT You know, I’ve talked to a lot of senators and congressmen since I’ve been running over the last year, met with them when I went to Washington, D.C., talked to them on the phone. They like my platform. Of course, they all read what you’re saying, you know, and they understand that I’m a Christian conservative and I’m going to be outspoken and I’m going to speak for the people of Alabama. They know I’m a huge Donald Trump fan and I’m going to go help protect the Constitution. I’m against spending. I’m against taxes. And you know that, you know, the big thing is to go up and speak the way you should speak for a state and country and not for special interest. Special interest in the swamp has almost put us under because they’re afraid to make a decision because of special interests. And then the other thing is, you know, they won’t stay up there forever. And I’m huge on term limits. I’m a true believer that we’ve got to start putting different voices up there. Every so often they say, ‘Well, we need seniority and we need we need leadership’. Hey, we got plenty of leaders in this country.
Look at what Donald Trump’s done. Never been in politics in his life and he’s done more in a three-year period than most up there combined. And he’s had to fight everybody trying to do it. So, you know, just look at this country where we’re at. We’re $23 trillion in debt. Our health care is terrible. President Trump’s got our military, thank goodness, back almost at full strength and working at it. We’ve got to get a border wall up. And he’s only who has even attempted to do it. They all say they want to do it, but they never do it. And I’m sick of hearing about people wanting to do something because we can’t afford people coming here. We can’t do it. We’re not taking the care, taking care of our veterans or our elderly or our mentally ill. We have no mental health program or plan in this country. And they wonder why we’re having people shot with guns. There’s very few positive things going on right now other than President Trump and our economy and the things he’s trying to do. And he needs help. And I want to go help him and give people in this state a voice.
TS Some people argue that in this environment, where Republicans or Democrats are just so far apart, that when it comes to the Senate, the votes you take and a vote Jeff Sessions takes and vote Bradley Byrne takes probably wouldn’t be that different. People say, well, when it comes down to votes, maybe they wouldn’t vote much differently. Is that true? Or I mean, if that’s the case, what really makes you stand out? What makes you a better choice than those two?
TT Because I know the problems. I’ve lived the problems for the last 40 years. And the problem we have when we have people go up there forever is they forget about really understanding the direction that we’re going. We’re headed – this country is headed right straight to socialism. And it’s all because of our politicians, because they’ve had their eyes closed. We know what the left wants to do. They’ve just gotten stronger in their ideas is because of the group, whatever they call the ‘squad’ or whatever, but the Republicans are just kind of sitting back and and we’re not fighting back. We think we do. We’ve got a group of them, a handful up there actually fighting back with President Trump. But we’re within a few years of losing this country if we don’t fight back and we’ve got a couple of guys I’m running against has been up there for total, what, 30 years. I want to find out what they’ve done. I mean, what they run all these ads and I’ve not seen one thing that they’ve said that they’ve really accomplished while they’ve been up there. I’ll tell you one thing. I’m going to work at it. I mean, I know I how to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week. And I’m not going up there to be on television or be on a radio or have two martini lunches or make money. The money I make is gonna go to the veterans of this state. I’m not taking it. I’ll present a check every month to a veteran or a gold star family or whatever. I’m doing this to help. I’m not going up there to get an ego or doing things that are going to take anything away from anybody, I want to give back.
TS It’s, of course, contrast season and now everybody’s differentiating themselves with the other candidates. You’ve done it here right now. You’ve also been attacked. There’ve been a couple of attack ads, I think, on the issue of immigration. Some comments you made about people coming here and needing jobs, working and things like that. What is your position on that? Just to clarify everything from those comments to what they’ve attacked you on, what is your sort of world view as far as immigration, people finding jobs, work visas, citizenship?
TT Well, you know, first of all, you know, when you follow a candidate around every day with young kids and they video everything you got, you can make a pretty good video out of it if you know how to cut it up. And that’s all fake news. They know dang well. One of the reasons I got in this is because I’ve been to the border probably more times than anybody in Washington, D.C., because I’ve worked in Texas. I’ve got friends that live down there. We’ve got a huge problem. We have a huge problem at the border. And we’ve had it for years and we’ve kicked the can down the road. And all these guys say, you know, we’re for the border wall. They never do it. Finally, we’ve got a guy that says, hey, you don’t give me the money, I’m still gonna find it somewhere to build it. And that’s Donald Trump. We’ve got to know who’s in this country. And if we don’t start identifying the people in this country, and there’s a lot of them here right now. We have no clue, no clue who they are, where they’re living now. What they’re trying to do, a lot of … are not trying to do good things in this country. They’re going to try to do bad things. And so, first of all, we’ve got to know who’s in this country.
I’m not for letting anybody in here foreign and giving any amnesty. I don’t know where that came from. I am totally against anybody coming here illegally and giving any pathway to citizenship, because we’ve got thousands of people that want to come here the right way. That could really help this country. That speak English, that are educated and can do jobs. We have thousands of them and there’s 400,000 in India right now that are well-trained, qualified, can come here and help make this country better. But we’re allowing people to come here across the border who can’t really help. We’re having to pay for them. You know, we’re a country that just believes in helping people. My goodness, we better take care of ourselves first, because if we’re not No. 1 – and that’s what President Trump said at his inaugural speech – if we’re not No. 1, nobody else is gonna survive because we help everybody. So, no, I’m not for amnesty. I mean, these people are throwing stuff after they have, you know, they’re trying to convince people, obviously, not to vote for me.
TS But it is an issue, like you kind of said, right, about people that are right now here illegally. I mean, it’s like 12 million or something. Advocates for some kind of bill would say, you know, just feasibly, it’s hard to send all those many people back to get in line. But you’re saying no, if you’re here illegally, you go back to the back of the line. Those here from Mexico, Central America would have to get back in line.
TT If you come here illegally, you should not ever be given an opportunity to break in line and be a citizen in this country. That’s not the way we do it. I mean, we’re built on Christian moral values in this country. Don’t break the law. I mean, they know the laws, unfortunately for us. You know, the Democrats want voters. I mean, they don’t want to help people. They want voters. And so they’ve let them in for years. And they’re, you know, just in this state alone, we’re being overwhelmed in our high schools. I was in a high school last week in a meeting with teachers and principals, every town I go to, I try to meet with school officials and teachers. They’re being overwhelmed, overwhelmed.
And we already have problems in education. If we don’t get our education straight in this country, it’s not going making a difference what we’re doing, anything else. You know, the liberals have taken over and they’re teaching socialism to our kids. And, you know, it’s a complete disaster at most schools, especially up north, but it’s creeping down to the south. But I’ve been in [schools] for 40 years and I’ve really seen it change for the worse. We’re losing respect for our teachers. We’re not doing things to teach discipline in school. We’re not holding anybody accountable. You can’t flunk anybody. You can’t make anybody retain anybody in the class. We’ve just got to pass them on. And we’re putting our kids at – a lot of them can’t read and write, pass the six grade level. I mean, we ought to be embarrassed at where we’re at right now. But it all goes back to Washington, D.C., from them trying to have too much control and just controlling what we do and losing it and not really understand the reality of what’s going on in this country. They have no clue. Donald Trump knew, though. I’m telling you, Donald Trump had a plan when he went in there. And he has created a sense of urgency in Washington, D.C., that I’m not seen in my lifetime.
TS There are different types of senators. They play different kinds of roles. You get some that, like Senator Shelby, who’s been there for a long, long time on the Appropriations Committee. You’ve got others who are more like messengers, bomb throwers who are, you know, messaging for their causes. You’ve got some that specialize in different areas. Just generally thinking out about it, you get up there and you’re a senator. What kind of senator do you want to be? What role do you want to play? If you want to be that guy that gets on the committees, you want to be the sort of more of the messenger. I mean, what’s the type of role you want to play?
TT I’ve always been a leader. You know, for 25 years as a head coach, over 120 kids, 150 employees. Hundred million dollar budget. And you’ve got to know how to teach leadership. And one thing you gotta do is you’ve got to get the trust of the people that you work with, Democrat and Republican. They’ve got to trust who you are. Because you’re gonna be a salesman when you go up there. You’ve got to be able to communicate. You’ve got to be able to talk. But you gotta be able to listen. We’ve got way too many talkers up there, not enough listeners. And so I’ve learned communication skills all my life. I’ve taught them. I’ve been able to sell kids to come to schools and and play for me. So I want to be a doer. I don’t want to sit back and watch things go on. We’ve had too many too much – too many things going on in this country that people just sit back and watch happen instead of going out there and force a positive approach to something. For instance, education, if we don’t get control over education, it’s not going to make a difference about our economy, about the border wall, about drugs. We’re gonna lose because we’re losing to the socialists. It was their plan all along. Jimmy Carter, he started the Department of Education. We’ve got 4,000 liberals, socialists that work in that part of education in Washington, D.C. They tell us in Alabama how to educate our kids. The courses, the curriculum, the techniques. When one elementary school teacher this year told me, coach, this year, I cannot use the word ‘no’ or or ‘don’t’ in the classroom. And here in Alabama, in elementary school. What are we doing? Totally wrong. And it comes from Washington, D.C. We’ve got to take that Department of Education and close it down and let every state have their own department of education. We’d be much better off.
TS You’ve got to go. One question, just turning to the horse race here. Here we are a week out. You’ve been up in one poll, but very competitive toward the top in most recent polls. What has to happen between now and election day for you to be successful and really looking forward, assuming you’re in the runoff, what has to happen in those four weeks politically, tactically for you to win?
TT You know, when I got in this, I said, you know, all I’m going to do is work. I’ll set me a plan of going to the grassroots. I wanted to get the ALFA endorsement. You know, people in rural areas. Well, I got it. And I out worked everyone else. Talked to them. Explained to them what I want to do, how I wanted to help them. Ever since then, though, I’ve also been going in the inner cities. There hadn’t been too many small towns I hadn’t been to, as we talked earlier about polls. I’ve been up. I’ve been down. And now it looks like, you know, I’m easing up. Got a little momentum here at the end, but I don’t look at scoreboards. I mean, I do not look at scoreboards. I don’t trust anything. I’m going to sprint through the line of scrimmage or the goal line here in the next nine days. And I’m not going to look back at the end of this race- I’m going to be able to look myself in the eye and say, you know what? You’ve done all you can do. I mean, it wasn’t anything else I could do. You know, I started with zero money. I put $1 million of my own money in it. But we’ve raised $1 million, $1.5 million. We don’t have near the money these swamp people have, you know, the career politicians because they take it from special interests in Washington, D.C. I’ve got over 8,000 donors from this state that have donated to me. And that’s gonna go a long way. So I feel good about where we’re at. You know, we’re just gonna keep grinding it in and see what happens.
TS Thanks for your time.
TT Thank you.