WASHINGTON — Former US attorney general Jeff Sessions wants his Alabama Senate seat back, but first he’ll face a former college football coach, a member of Congress, and Roy Moore, an ex-judge accused of sexual misconduct, in a Republican primary next week.
While Sessions appears poised to place first in the primary, likely going into a runoff with another Republican in late March, he’s running without the approval of his former boss, President Donald Trump. Instead, the president has been giving shoutouts to a member of Congress over the former attorney general he constantly criticized.
Trump forced Sessions to resign in 2018, a year after he recused himself from the Russia investigations that led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. His resignation preceded a barrage of insults from Trump, including the time the president mocked Sessions’ Southern accent, when he called Sessions “disgraceful” in a tweet, and when Trump tweeted that he wished he had chosen a different attorney general.
The seven-person race for the Alabama Senate seat is shaping up to be a fight among three top contenders: Sessions, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, and Rep. Bradley Byrne. Moore trails at a distant fourth place. All seven candidates hope to bolster the Senate majority in November by flipping the seat currently held by Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat. The primary will take place on March 3, Super Tuesday.
Democrats took the seat by a slim margin during a 2017 special election after Jones edged out Moore to become the first Democrat elected to an Alabama Senate seat since 1992. Moore’s campaign floundered after several women accused him of sexual misconduct, including pursuing teenage girls and child molestation. Several Republicans called on Moore to drop out of the race at the time, though Trump continued supporting the former judge. Moore has denied the allegations and last year blamed Democratic operatives in Washington DC and Republicans for hijacking his 2017 bid.
Despite public opposition from Trump and other Republicans to him running again, Moore announced his Senate bid last June. With a week before the election, he trails in fundraising and local polling, clearing the path for the three front runners ahead of the primary. Sessions leads the group in most polls with Tuberville close behind.
Sessions served as Alabama’s senator for two decades before Trump picked him to serve as US attorney general. The day Sessions announced his candidacy to retake the seat, he addressed the one-sided feud with Trump in a stunning display of loyalty.
“When I left president Trump’s cabinet, did I write a tell-all book? No,” Sessions said in a 30-second campaign launch video. “Did I go on CNN and attack the president? Nope. Have I said a cross word about our president? Not one time,” he said, later adding, “I was his strongest advocate. I still am."
But his Republican rivals have latched onto the controversy. Tuberville and Byrne have released attack videos targeting Sessions.
Tuberville, a self-proclaimed “conservative outsider,” opened his video with a clip of Trump saying he regrets appointing Sessions as attorney general. Byrne’s video attacks Sessions’ tenure at the White House with comments like “he let the president down and got fired” and "Hillary still ain’t in jail.”
Sessions shot back in his own video, calling Tuberville and Byrne “desperate.” He attacked Tuberville’s Florida state residency and went after Byrne for a statement he released in 2016 calling then-candidate Trump “unfit to be president” and requesting he step aside as the Republican nominee after the Access Hollywood video of Trump talking about grabbing women “by the pussy” was made public.
Byrne’s earlier views haven’t stopped him from campaigning as a Trump ally. And the final outcome of the primary could hinge on an endorsement from the president.
Trump hasn’t backed a candidate, but Byrne was seen in the president’s viewer’s box at the big LSU–Alabama football game last year. The president also called Byrne an “unbelievable friend” during his parade of acknowledgments at a press conference a day after the Senate acquitted him in his impeachment trial.
The race remains tight with 31% of Alabamians in favor of Sessions and the popular football coach Tuberville close behind at 29%, according to a Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy poll published earlier this month. Byrne trails with 17% and Moore, far behind the group at 5%.
Alabama law requires a primary candidate to win with 50% in order to advance to the general election. Recent polling suggests the top two candidates will continue on to a March 31 runoff.
Businessperson Stanley Adair, Alabama state Rep. Arnold Mooney, and local activist Ruth Page-Nelson are also running in the Super Tuesday primary.