WASHINGTON — Alabama Republicans on Tuesday will choose a nominee for the U.S. Senate in a primary runoff that will test President Trump’s influence over GOP voters in the deep-red state.
Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville has led former U.S. Sen. and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in most polls, including the most recent surveys, where he leads by double digits. But turnout predictions are difficult in a pandemic, particularly in an election that was postponed because of COVID-19 from March 31 to July 14.
Tuberville, a first-time candidate, won the March 3 primary with 33 percent of the vote to Sessions’s 31 percent, but the contest went to a runoff because no candidate received at least 50 percent of the vote. The seat was occupied by Sessions from 1997 until 2017, when he left to become Trump’s attorney general.
Trump endorsed Tuberville a week after the March primary. The president has made no secret of his antipathy for Sessions, who enraged Trump by recusing himself from the Justice Department’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Trump called Sessions “a disaster who has let us all down” in a tweet this past weekend. The president has heaped abuse on Sessions over the past few years, including when he was still attorney general.
Sessions responded to Trump on Saturday. “My honor and integrity are far more important than these juvenile insults. Your scandal ridden candidate is too cowardly to debate,” Sessions tweeted, referring to charges of fraud against Tuberville involving a hedge fund he co-founded around 2009.
Tuberville’s partner was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the hedge fund’s misdeeds, and Tuberville himself reached a private settlement with investors.
Sessions, for his part, was the first senator to endorse Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries while other prominent lawmakers kept the then real estate tycoon at a distance. At the time, Sessions was one of the most outspoken critics of immigration in the GOP, and Trump praised him as “a great man.”
“He’s really the expert as far as I’m concerned on borders, on so many things,” Trump said of Sessions at the February 2016 rally where they announced the endorsement.
If Sessions were to pull out a surprise win, it would not be the first embarrassment for Trump in Alabama, a deeply conservative state that Trump won by 28 points in the 2016 election. In 2017, Trump endorsed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in a special election primary to fill the seat vacated by Sessions when he was appointed attorney general.
But Strange lost to Roy Moore, the far-right former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Trump then endorsed Moore in the general election against Democrat Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney. Moore lost after several women alleged he had engaged in sexual misconduct with them when they were minors.
Moore’s loss to Jones marked the first time Alabama had sent a Democrat to the Senate in more than 20 years. Jones is now considered the Democratic senator most likely to lose a bid for reelection this November, in large part because the state is so conservative.
Critics say Tuberville, after receiving Trump’s endorsement, has done little to actively campaign for the seat. He refused to debate Sessions, the Wall Street Journal reported that he has not spoken to reporters in the state for several weeks and his pinned tweet is still from March 10, touting the president’s decision to back him that day.
“Tuberville has not even run a campaign,” Curt Anderson, a Sessions campaign consultant, told Yahoo News. “He doesn’t talk to the press. He won’t talk to the voters. He won’t debate. He literally is not a candidate.”
“He is just a vessel for Trump and Trump’s ire at Sessions. It’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever seen,” Anderson said.
In a dig at Tuberville, Anderson said he would have advised the former football coach, who has never held political office, to duck debates as well.
“He would get destroyed [in a debate]. He made the right decision there, unfortunately,” Anderson said.
The Tuberville campaign has not responded to a request for comment.
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