Vasha Hunt / AP
Veterans recently gathered alongside the USS Alabama battleship on Mobile Bay in a show of support for former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“Let’s hear it for the man by the hour, the one time and future senator from Alabama, the honored veteran Jeff Sessions,” retired Brig. General Richard Allen said as he introduced Sessions.
But the audience was sparse. And only a television camera appeared, even though the look was in his hometown of Mobile.
Sessions is fighting for his political life in a Republican runoff for his old Senate seat in Alabama. The 73-year-old is facing a political newcomer, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who has a two-digit advantage, according to the latest survey. The winner in Tuesday’s runoff will move on to the general election to take on the late. Doug Jones, the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate and the GOP’s best shot at winning a seat held by a Democrat.
While Sessions is trying out local support, his opponent has one of the most popular politicians in this deep red state: President Trump.
Sessions says it is not up to Washington to dictate the race.
“The president can support whoever he wants,” he said. “But the people of Alabama will decide this race.”
John Minchillo / AP
Sessions is in a completely different position than he was in 2016, when the crowd cheered for him on Mobile when he showed up with then-candidate Donald Trump. Sessions was one of the first Deep South politicians to support him.
“We have a man here who really helped me,” Trump said at the time. “He is the person I sought his advice because he is such a place.”
Sessions served 20 years in the Senate and was the leading voice against illegal immigration, long before Trump called for a border wall. Sessions claims he remains the candidate most aligned with the president’s agenda.
But he is most associated now with his troubled position in the Trump administration and his decision to withdraw from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Sessions was extradited as state prosecutor in 2018 after being repeatedly mocked by Trump, who called Sessions a “disaster.”
“I know he has his strong feelings for this breed,” Sessions said. “I know he is upset by the long, lengthy investigation that really disturbed his life and in many ways made it difficult for him to steer effectively.”
Sessions says he had to follow the law.
“I did my duty as I saw it,” he said. “And I think in the long run, it worked.”
On Saturday, Trump again took to Twitter in support of Tuberville. “[H]e is a winner who will never let you lose, “Trump wrote.” Jeff Sessions is a disaster that has let us all down. We don’t want him back in Washington! “
Sessions responded more forcefully than before. “My honor and integrity are much more important than these young insults,” he clapped back.
I have taken the road less traveled. Not sought fame or fortune. My honor and integrity are far more important than these youthful insults. Your scandal ridden candidate is too cowardly to debate. As you know, Alabama does not take orders from Washington. https://t.co/1I6ROih43E
– Jeff Sessions (@jeffsessions) July 11, 2020
Tuberville’s campaign has tried to exploit the notion that Sessions is now damaged goods.
“You can’t fake it. You’re either strong or not. Jeff Sessions, he’s not,” the former Auburn coach says in an ad set in a weightlifting gym behind him. “He was not enough man to stand with President Trump when it was tough.”
The ad also shows a clip of Tuberville walking down the stairs to Air Force One with Trump on a June trip to Dallas.
Tuberville was nicknamed “Riverboat Gambler” for taking risks on the football field during his coaching career, but with an option he has taken some risks in this runoff, which was moved to July from March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tuberville has refused to debate and generally avoids the media as a result of Tuesday’s vote.
Without a political record, he has been scrutinized for his role in a hedge fund as a fraud investor, and Sessions has criticized him for living in Florida before returning to Alabama to run for Senate.
But out on the promotional track, Tuberville gets the celebrity coach treatment in a state where college football is the holy grail.
“What is it, Coach Tub?” fans ask in a Facebook video from Tuberville’s visit to a boat parade honoring Trump in Orange Beach during the Fourth of July weekend.
“I need your vote to send a U.S. senator to Washington, DC, to represent this state, this country and Donald Trump,” Tuberville tells people packed on boats dropping Trump 2020 campaign flags.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images
Back in Battleship Park in Mobile, Reginald Hartz, a veteran who served in the Iraq and Gulf wars, said he is breaking which Republican he would vote for. He is a Trump supporter but says the president’s degrading tweets about sessions are not a factor for him.
“Just nitpicking, to me it’s childish,” he said.
Hartz believes the race comes down to whether Alabama needs a political outsider or someone who knows the halls of power.
“I’m an Auburn fan, but you still have a career politician versus a guy who never set foot and knows very little about politics,” Hartz said.
The candidate winning the GOP runoff will have the advantage in November against Democrat Jones, in a state where Trump has his highest net approval value in the country.