Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville won Alabama’s GOP Senate primary on Tuesday, defeating Jeff Sessions after President Donald Trump endorsed Tuberville instead of his one-time attorney general who had been a close ideological ally.
Tuberville is now the favorite to defeat Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November’s elections which would be a key Republican pickup in the battle for Senate control. Trump won the deeply conservative, racially polarized state by 28% four years ago.
The race between Tuberville, 65, and Sessions, 73, who had been elected to the Senate four times by Alabama voters and had been a revered political figure in the state before joining the administration, was wholly defined by Trump’s wishes and served as a demonstration of his dominance over the party’s base.
While Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump in 2016 and provided much of the policy framework to go with Trump’s hardline anti-immigrant, white nationalist rhetoric, Trump never forgave him for quickly recusing himself, as attorney general, from the investigation into the Russia efforts to influence and skew the ’16 election. Sessions’ move led to Robert Mueller’s appointment as the special counsel to lead the probe that was a prolonged thorn in Trump’s side.
Shortly after the first round of primary voting in March in which no candidate exceeded the 50% vote count needed to win outright, Trump endorsed Tuberville in the runoff. That turned what could have been a close race ― Tuberville had earned 33% of the vote to Sessions’ 32% ― into one in which the ex-football coach was heavily favored.
Trump reiterated the endorsement several times on Twitter, prompting late-night responses from Sessions.
.@realdonaldtrump Look, I know your anger, but recusal was required by law. I did my duty & you’re damn fortunate I did. It protected the rule of law & resulted in your exoneration. Your personal feelings don’t dictate who Alabama picks as their senator, the people of Alabama do. https://t.co/QQKHNAgmiE
— Jeff Sessions (@jeffsessions) May 23, 2020
Tuberville, a political neophyte who also coached at the University of Mississippi, Texas Tech and the University of Cincinnati, spent most of the runoff avoiding press coverage. He also declined to debate Sessions, relying on Trump’s endorsements and attacks on Sessions to power him to victory. He has mostly adopted standard-issue Trump-era GOP positions, though he has criticized the president’s handling of trade with China.
Jones was elected to the Senate seat against scandal-ridden Republican Roy Moore in a December 2017 special election to fill out the remainder of the term that Sessions had won in 2014. Jones is considered the most vulnerable senator in the country in this year’s vote.
Republicans hold a 53-47 edge in the Senate, and an upset Jones victory would smooth the Democratic party’s path to claiming the chamber’s majority.
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