MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WALA) – Two weeks ago, U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville’s bus caught fire, but on Tuesday, it was Jeff Sessions’ campaign that went down in flames.
Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach making his first run for public office, cruised past Sessions in a primary runoff for the right to challenge incumbent Democrat Doug Jones.
Addressing a jubilant crowd of supporters, Tuberville immediately began to the work of uniting the GOP. He said spoke with Sessions just before taking the stage.
“He was awesome,” he said. “He said, ‘Coach, I’ll all in.’”
Sessions waged an energetic campaign to reclaim his old seat, but he ran into a powerful opponent – not Tuberville, but President Donald Trump. The president has not tried to hide his disdain for Sessions for his decision, as attorney general, to recuse himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Trump has kept up a steady barrage of criticism on Twitter and in media interviews. This week, he participated in a live telephone call with Tuberville that went to Alabama households. Trump on Tuesday retweeted a series of his older tweets endorsing various candidates on the ballot, praising them. He praised Tuberville, too, but unlike the other races took a jab at the opponent – “Jeff Sessions is a disaster who has let us all down. We don’t want him back in Washington!”
Sessions tried to cast himself as an experienced conservative fighter who was – and still is – an enthusiastic supporter of Trump and his agenda. But he never had an answer for Trump’s charge that he had let the president down with his recusing. Sessions backed away from the probe during the early days of the administration after career ethics advisers at the Department of Justice determined it would be a conflict of interest to oversee a probe that touched on a campaign he participated in.
That decision led to the eventual appointment of Robert Mueller as independent counsel and forever altered the course of the Trump presidency.
Attention now shifts to the fall election. In a year where there are a half-dozen or more vulnerable Republican seats on the Senate map, Alabama stands as an outlier in the other direction.
Most analysts believe Jones is the Democratic incumbent most like to lose in November. But Jones – aided by unusual circumstances – defied expectations in a 2017 special election to fill the Senate seat Sessions once held. And Jones has a substantial fundraising advantage of Tuberville.
Tuberville welcomed the support of his vanquished opponent, Sessions, and told supporters that it would have to be “all hands on deck” to beat Jones in the fall.
“Democrat Doug Jones is running for re-election with the slogan ‘One Alabama.’ Well, make no mistake about it,” he said. “What Doug really means is one liberal Alabama.”
Tuberville appeared loose and confident as he walked through the ballroom at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa before polls had even closed, greeting a smattering of supporters and campaign volunteers who showed up early.
“Year and a half ago, it was all calm,” he told a reporter. “And the last year and a half, it’s picked up.”
Tuberville said he was hoping for a short night.
“There’s not many people on the ballot,” he said. “I don’t think it will be that long. The primary took forever. You had everybody across the state.”
On the campaign trail, Sessions cast his opponent as a novice who was afraid to debate and never bothered to learn deeply about the issues. Tuberville whacked Sessions over the Russia probe and promised never to let Trump down.
On the issues, the two candidates differed little – except about what each other’s positions were. The candidates depicted each other as soft on China. Sessions pointed to Tuberville comments he said showed the former coach could not be trusted on immigration. Tuberville said he, not Sessions, was best-positioned to help Trump build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sessions questioned whether Tuberville was a true Alabamian – he voted and paid taxes in Florida until just before launching his candidacy – and in the waning days of the campaign raised questions about a business deal in which a partner of Tuberville’s pleaded guilty to a fraud charge. Tuberville never was charged with a crime, and he settled a lawsuit out of court.
But in the end, the difference voter most easily could grasp was Trump.
The path for Sessions in the runoff was clear – hold on to the counties he won during the first round of voting in March, take the counties in the Mobile area that third-place finisher Bradley Byrne carried and hold down Tuberville’s margins, elsewhere.
Sessions failed on three fronts. He won only three counties – Wilcox, where he grew up; Mobile; where he made his professional career; and Madison County.