Jeff Sessions Comeback Bid Tests Trump’s Grip on GOP Voters

Jeff Sessions’ bid to reclaim an Alabama Senate seat for Republicans amounts to a grudge match with his former boss, President Donald Trump, whose popularity has been dented by the U.S. recession and a surge in coronavirus cases across the South.

Trump cast Sessions aside as U.S. attorney general two years ago in anger over his recusal from the Russia investigation and hasn’t forgotten. He may get a final bit of revenge by backing former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who’s favored in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff.

“This is Trump’s final twist of the knife at the back of Sessions’ head,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

Jeff Sessions Comeback Bid Tests Trump’s Grip on GOP Voters

Despite Sessions’s history in Alabama as a U.S. attorney, state attorney general and three-term U.S. senator, Tuberville holds a significant lead in polls after narrowly coming out on top in the first round of voting on March 3. Taylor said the former coach had a clear edge heading into Tuesday, though turnout in runoff elections in the age of the coronavirus is inherently hard to predict. The runoff itself was postponed because of the pandemic.

Battle for Senate

The outcome will do more than settle an intra-party squabble in a heavily Republican state. The winner on Tuesday will have a key role in the GOP effort to hold on to its majority in the Senate after the November general election. With at least five incumbent Republican senators facing serious threat of defeat, the GOP is looking to topple Alabama’s other senator, Doug Jones, the most vulnerable Democrat on the ballot.

Jones won a narrow victory over Roy Moore, a controversial Republican candidate who had been endorsed by Trump, in a 2017 special election to fill the seat Sessions had vacated to join Trump’s administration.

Sessions has assailed Tuberville on the campaign trail over his stance on immigration, his connection to a fraudulent hedge fund, lack of roots in Alabama and for ducking debates. Tuberville in turn touts his status as a political outsider, his success as a coach in college football’s top tier and, particularly, the Trump endorsement in a state where the president won 62% of the vote in 2016. He’s accused Sessions of having “cut and run” on Trump.

Taylor called Sessions the de facto incumbent given his 20 years holding the seat. Yet she pointed out that two-thirds of voters picked someone else in the first round of the party contest. That’s hard to make up, she said, with a president in your party actively working against you.

“Trump is someone who obviously holds grudges,” she said. “The way he has eviscerated Jeff Sessions is I think classic Trump.”

Early Trump Backer

The former senator’s quest to regain his old job has a Shakespearean quality to it. Sessions was Trump’s earliest and by far his most fervent Senate backer in 2016. He was sometimes the only senator who would stop among the scrums of reporters and defend Trump at length to anyone on almost any subject.

His positions of restricting immigration and opposing free trade deals put him out of step with the Chamber of Commerce, establishment Republicans and Wall Street, but they were issues central to Trump’s rise.

He campaigned for Trump and gave up a safe Senate seat to become his attorney general. Sessions’ longtime aide Stephen Miller is a top adviser and speechwriter for Trump.

All that changed in 2017 when then-Attorney General Sessions complied with a Department of Justice regulation that he recuse himself from the investigation into the campaign in which he played a key role.

Trump began targeting him on Twitter and in remarks, decrying the recusal and questioning his loyalty and hasn’t let up.

‘A Disaster’

“Jeff Sessions was a disaster,” Trump told Fox’s Sean Hannity on June 25, blaming him for the series of investigations of his campaign and his associates. “He was a total disaster because he basically let it happen — unknowingly, because he’s not very smart. But they let it happen. And it’s a shame what they put this country through.”

The fight continued on Twitter the weekend before the vote, with Trump reiterating his endorsement of Tuberville and saying Sessions “has let us all down.” Sessions responded calling the insults juvenile and saying “Alabama does not take orders from Washington.”

Trump’s endorsements usually lead to victory in Republican primaries, and his wrath can be fierce.

“When Sessions was in the Senate he was the most strident immigration hardliner, but I think ultimately to voters in Alabama that gets a little bit lost,” Taylor said. To many of those voters “it seems like he betrayed Trump and Tuberville is saying all of the right things.”

It’s unclear whether Trump’s standing has suffered in Alabama from the pandemic and the subsequent economic impact. Like many states especially in the South, Alabama in recent weeks has seen a virus spike, hitting daily records in hospitalizations and positive tests in the past week. Deaths last week topped 1,000 in the state of about 5 million people. Alabama’s unemployment rate rose to 13.8% in April before dropping to 9.9% in May — significantly below the national average.

Tuberville, at the same time, has faced controversies in recent weeks. The New York Times recently wrote about his involvement in a fraudulent hedge fund — an associate was charged with the fraud and Tuberville was sued by investors who later settled with the former coach, the Times reported.

Fox Ally

Sessions also has longtime allies, particularly among supporters of immigration restrictions. Sessions appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program last week, with Carlson glowingly calling him one of the few politicians he respects.

“We have to have some warriors in the Congress to push our Republicans. To many of them are hiding out and not speaking out,” Sessions said, while touting his role defeating an immigration overhaul and opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “My opponent is hiding out.”

Sessions, 73, has faced the political wilderness before, when he was rejected for a U.S. district court judgeship in 1986 over disputed charges about his actions and comments on race. He mounted a comeback and ultimately won a Senate seat and a place on the Judiciary Committee -- the very panel that had turned him away. By 2014, he was seen as so unbeatable no one challenged his most recent re-election to the Senate.

Winning Tuesday would bring him back from the political dead for a second time.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.