Sessions faces tight primary race in bid to reclaim his seat in Alabama

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(CBP Photo by Glenn Fawcett)

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) speaks to a panel of Department of Homeland Security officials in Washington in 2016.

Former GOP Senator Jeff Sessions is facing a tough primary challenge in his bid to reclaim the Alabama seat he gave up in 2017 to serve as attorney general in the Trump administration. 

Details: Sessions will have to beat former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, Rep. Bradley Byrne, failed 2017 Senate special election candidate Roy Moore and three others to win the Alabama Republican primary on March 3. Come November, the winner of the primary will take on Sen. Doug Jones, a moderate Democrat who narrowly defeated Moore in the 2017 special election. 

The frontrunners: A poll released last week found Tuberville and Sessions in a statistical tie with 32% and 29% support, respectively. Byrne, who has raised more than $3.3 million, is in third place with 17%. Angi Stalnaker, an Alabama-based Republican political consultant, expects the race to result in a runoff, likely between Sessions and either Tuberville or Byrne, she told Jewish Insider

Predictions: State-level primary polling can be “a very inexact science” and might not reflect the actual state of the race, University of Alabama politics professor Stephen Borrelli warned. Borrelli predicted that Sessions would win the primary, but noted that Tuberville has proven to be a stronger challenger than anticipated. 

Why now? Sessions held the Senate seat for 20 years before he left to head up the Department of Justice. Sessions resigned from the White House at the president’s request the day after the 2018 midterms. “I think Sessions probably just wants to end his career on a good note,” Borrelli tells Jewish Insider. “I think the whole trying to portray him as the person who betrayed Trump, or the person who let Trump down or whatever, it’s not working in Alabama,” Borrelli said, “because Sessions really had that solid base of support for his 20 years in the Senate.”

The challenger: Tuberville is a career college football coach, who coached Auburn’s team from 1999 to 2008. This gives him a built-in base of support from Auburn fans, but also limits him, given the strong football rivalry between Auburn and the University of Alabama. “In Alabama, you got a lot of people who just despise Auburn [and] would never vote for Tommy Tuberville in a million years,” Borrelli explained. On the other hand, he noted, “Tuberville comes across kind of like the Trump-like alternative, somebody who’s completely disengaged from politics most of his career and talks tough. And so I think he’s been able to use that for [his] advantage.”

On the issues: The candidates are mostly aligned on policy. “It’s kind of hard to get any daylight between most of the candidates,” Borrelli said. Byrne recently started running attack ads suggesting that Tuberville supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, something the coach denies. 

Twitter breaks the tie: The race could come down to 280 characters. Trump, who enjoys high approval ratings in the state, has yet to endorse a primary candidate, but a nod of approval from POTUS could propel Sessions or Tuberville to victory. “The thing that would turn this race on its head is a tweet from Trump, and nobody knows if that is going to happen,” Cook Political Report editor Jessica Taylor told the Washington Examiner. Borrelli, however, disagreed, noting that Sessions’s support in Alabama has held up through the president’s previous public critiques.

What to expect in the general: Jones edged out Moore in the 2017 special election following numerous allegations late in the race that the former Alabama chief justice had pursued relationships with underage girls. Jones’s vote to convict Trump in the Senate impeachment trial is an indicator that “he knows there’s no way he’s going to win reelection,” Borrelli said. “But I think he does want to strengthen the Democratic Party. I think he’s going to wage a tough campaign and try to get a solid base of support.” Recent polls indicate that Sessions, Tuberville and Byrne would all beat Jones in general election match-ups.

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