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Jeff Sessions Embraces President Trump In Comeback Senate Bid

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions campaigns for Alabama's Senate seat at the Blue Plate restaurant Thursday in Huntsville, Ala. Sessions is stressing his loyalty to President Trump as he seeks to regain the Senate seat he held for 20 years.
Vasha Hunt

Saying you're behind President Trump goes a long way in Alabama, where he has a 60% approval rating. Even a local school board candidate declared his devotion to the president during a recent speech at a meeting of the South Baldwin Republican Women in Foley, Ala.

And it's a factor in a hotly contested Republican Senate primary. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is seeking his old Senate seat back in the March 3 primary to pick the GOP nominee to challenge Sen. Doug Jones, considered the most vulnerable Democrat up for reelection.

At the Republican women's group in south Alabama, Anne Saunders says she's looking for a Trump supporter "because we need unity." Marge Bumann agrees. "They should stand by the president," she says.

The active GOP voters here say Trump's presidency has been good for the economy and they want a Senate candidate who reflects his priorities.

The top contenders in the Super Tuesday primary are Sessions, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne and political newcomer Tommy Tuberville, a former football coach at Auburn University. The twice-ousted former chief justice of Alabama, Roy Moore, is also running. He lost the 2017 Senate race to Jones, and his campaign has struggled to gain traction in this GOP primary.

For the others, the message on the airwaves is about who is the "Trumpiest."

"God sent us Donald Trump because God knew we were in trouble," Tuberville says in an ad showing him driving a pickup truck. "I'm going to stand with President Donald Trump on building the wall."

Byrne is running an ad that shows Trump calling him out at a White House event thanking Republicans who supported him during impeachment. "Thank you, Bradley," Trump says.

And despite his very public falling out with the president when he was attorney general, Sessions' argument is that he's best suited to fight for Trump's agenda.

"Others talk big about Trump, hoping to get your vote," Sessions says in one ad. "But talk is cheap. I've been with him from the start."

The ad shows a clip of Trump pointing to Sessions on stage early in the 2016 presidential campaign. Sessions is wearing a red MAGA ball cap.

Sessions is a longtime Alabama politician. He served 20 years in the U.S. Senate, earning a reputation as a leading voice against illegal immigration. Before that he was a U.S. attorney, nominated by President Ronald Reagan, and then Alabama's attorney general until he was elected to the Senate in 1996.

But voters now associate him most with his troubled tenure in the Trump administration. He stepped down as attorney general in 2018 after being repeatedly mocked by Trump, angry that Sessions recused himself from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Sessions has had to answer for that on the campaign trail.

For instance on the Leland Live podcast on Birmingham's talk radio 99.5, a caller named Richard from Jasper, Ala., asked why Trump hasn't backed Sessions in the race. "Why didn't you stand with him during the investigation when you were the attorney general?" he asked.

"I have stood with Donald Trump all the way through," Sessions answered on the radio show and explained that he was following the law when he recused himself from the Mueller probe.

"I have been Donald Trump's No. 1 supporter," Sessions said during a campaign appearance in Hoover, Ala.

Asked what he's doing to sway frustrated voters, Sessions said he is trying to remind Alabamians that his ideas are what helped Trump win in the first place.

"Before he announced I was advancing the agenda that he believes in," Sessions says. "I'm the one that helped Donald Trump form his agenda. I'm the one who campaigned with him all over this country on his plane. I introduced him at the Republican convention, I nominated him."

He points out that Bryne said Trump was unfit to serve in 2016, and that Tuberville never contributed to Trump's campaign despite his lucrative football salary.

"Where were they when the chips were down?" he asked.

But Sessions' message is falling flat for Frances Andrews of Athens, Ala.

"He made us a good senator but I've been very angry with him," Andrews says. "Recusing himself when he was appointed attorney general — it was almost a betrayal to me."

Andrews is undecided but has come to a lunch meeting of the Republican Women of Madison to hear one of Sessions' opponents, the congressman representing Alabama's first district. Byrne's from the Mobile area and has come to this north Alabama suburb of Huntsville to court voters who might not be familiar with him.

Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., speaks as the House of Representatives debates the articles of impeachment against President Trump on Dec. 18, 2019.
/ AP
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., speaks as the House of Representatives debates the articles of impeachment against President Trump on Dec. 18, 2019.

"My name is Bradley Byrne. I'm a Christian, I'm conservative, and I'm a fighter," he said opening his speech to the group.

He highlighted his shout-out from the president at the White House.

"Why did he call me out? I told you I was a fighter. I fought for him," Bryne said. "I was fighting for you because the attack on President Trump was an attack on everybody in this room."

Traditionally seen as a mainstreet Republican, Byrne is drawing attack ads from the conservative Club for Growth.

He has faced criticism for now running a Senate campaign that appeals more to the nation's political divide. Byrne rejects the notion that he's angling for political gain.

"It's not true," she says. Byrne says he votes with the president 97% of the time because he believes on substance, Trump is right.

"And I think this impeachment effort last year was totally bogus," says Byrne.

That's something all the candidates agree on.

At Big B Barbecue in Alexander City, Ala., big game trophies adorn the wood-paneled walls. Former Auburn coach Tuberville is here to mingle and take selfies with football fans.

He stops at a booth where Weogufka, Ala., cattle farmers Pete Rodgers and Roger Morris are having lunch.

"Coach we need some backbone in Washington," they say.

"You're fixing to get it," Tuberville says. "That's the reason I'm doing this. I'm so sick of career politicians I can't stand it."

The fact that Tuberville is a political novice is appealing to voters here.

"I think he has experience with people and that's what he needs," says Faye Johnson of Childersburg who stopped to exchange the Auburn battle cry of "War Eagle" with Tuberville.

"I don't want to be a politician," Tuberville says. "I want to be a helper."

He makes easy conversation, talking about gigging frogs in the rain, and asking people how work is going.

Former Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville courts voters at Big B Barbecue in Alexander City, Ala.
Debbie Elliott / NPR
Former Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville courts voters at Big B Barbecue in Alexander City, Ala.

"If you're not busy now you need to get another profession," he says citing the economy.

Farmer Roger Morris likes what he hears from "coach" as he calls Tuberville. He's frustrated that Sessions is in the race.

"Sessions is a wimp. He's got no backbone," says Morris. "He needs to just get out of the way."

Other voters are more forgiving.

"I think he was put in a bad position," says David Phillips of Robertsdale, Ala.

And some are waiting for a cue from the White House.

"I would like to hear a word from President Trump," says Frances Andrews.

But despite all the candidates touting their support for the president, Trump has yet to weigh in on the Alabama Senate primary.

Polls indicate a race so close that no one will win an outright majority on Super Tuesday, likely forcing a GOP Senate runoff on March 31 to face the Democrat Jones in November.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South and occasionally guest-hosting NPR news programs. She covers the latest news and politics and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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