Conquering Hero or Political Villain? How Alabama’s Conservative Voters Will View Jeff Sessions After Turbulent AG Tenure
The end of Jeff Sessions’ topsy-turvy time as attorney general came abruptly, a day after one of the nation’s most important mid-term elections. After nearly two years of being publicly berated by President Donald Trump, Sessions is out and free to return home to Alabama, the state that sent him to the U.S. Senate for 20 years.
How conservatives across the state will welcome him is an open question. Will he be greeted as a conquering hero or a political villain? For that matter, will he return to Alabama or stay in Washington, where any number of law firms, consultants and other political organizations would welcome the deposed attorney general with open arms and a fat paycheck.
And then there’s perhaps the biggest question of all. Will he cast a longing eye on the seat he once held, now occupied by Democrat Doug Jones? So far Sessions isn’t saying anything publicly.
Former State Senator Scott Beason of Gardendale, now a self-described “recovering politician” and radio and television talk show host, thinks Sessions is not “a mercenary kind of guy” and probably won’t slip into a job at a K Street lobbying firm in Washington.
But as far as the regard with which Republican voters back home have for Sessions, Beason thinks it will fall somewhere in between hero and villain.
“I really believe it’s going to be kind of a wait-and-see thing, even for me and I like Jeff a lot,” Beason said.
Perhaps the biggest disagreement between Trump and Sessions came when Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and refused to exert control over special counsel Robert Mueller.
“I think a number of people are upset with the apparent responsiveness to the Mueller investigation,” Beason said. “A lot of Alabamians, including myself, believe it’s a hoax and a witch hunt.”
But, Beason said, “We love him for what he was doing with the (Mexican) border and what he did as a U.S. senator.”
“If it turns out he was doing a bang-up job at the Department of Justice that we just didn’t see, preparing to drain the swamp — and that’s what a lot of people are saying that’s he was doing — then he will be universally loved within the state,” Beason said. “A lot of us are like myself in that we have very positive feelings for him. We like the job he did, we like that he did a great job enforcing the border, which was (one of) his big issues as a senator and … at the Department of Justice. But there’s still that little bit of, ‘Come on, you’ve got to be a little more of a warrior.’”
Syndicated columnist Steve Flowers, a former state legislator whose weekly political column appears in dozens of local newspapers across Alabama, has held differing opinions on the hero-or-villain question at different times.
“Initially, when Trump started beating up Sessions and trying to run him off, people sympathized with Sessions,” Flowers said. “But there’s some mystical popularity that Trump enjoys in Alabama, and about six months ago, the gauge started moving toward Trump and Sessions got out of favor with Alabamians because he wasn’t succumbing to Trump’s wishes. I think Sessions took a hit on this. But, having said that, I think he goes back to where he was.”
Favorite for Senate Race?
Flowers said that Sessions was the state’s most popular figure among conservatives in the last 10 years of his Senate tenure and may return to that popularity if he decides to take on Jones, who officially announced this week that he would run for re-election.
“If he decides to run for his Senate seat again, I think Sessions’ popularity is rejuvenated again, partly based on the fact that he’ll basically be looked on as an incumbent,” Flowers said. “Sessions is so well known, plus he’s got a big war chest already. He would easily beat Doug Jones. He not only becomes the favorite in the face, he clears the field of any other political heavyweights.”
That would include Rep. Bradley Byrne of Mobile, who’s made no secret of his interest in the race.
“Byrne is the favorite right now, and he’s cleared the field to a certain extent already,” Flowers said.
Beason thinks Sessions won’t make a move toward a Senate run for a little while.
“I think right now, Jeff … in the short term is not thinking about that. He’s probably going to sit and cool down for a little while and let some things pass over. He’s probably not really considered it,” Beason said.
“I think if he did run for that old spot, he would be a difficult person to beat, especially if he has good reasons for doing what he did. I’ve said on the radio program and on my cable show that Jeff’s big mistake was believing some of those Senate colleagues … would continue to treat him as a colleague, and he decided to step aside and recuse himself because he thought it was the right thing, and he miscalculated. There’s a lot of people in Washington, D.C., who aren’t concerned about what the right thing to do is. They’re concerned about power. He stepped aside, and they filled the void,” Beason said.
But if Sessions took Flowers’ advice, he would forego the 2020 election in favor of the money.
“If I were in Jeff Sessions’ shoes, that’s what I would do — not go back to the Senate. He’s 71 years old. I would take some cushy lobbying or counseling job. … I think Sessions would fit in better with one of these think tanks in Washington, that’s where he would feel more at home, plus he would make a lot of money,” Flowers said.
The old saying of “politics makes strange bedfellows” was evidenced last week when a nationwide demonstration organized by MoveOn.org, one of the largest activist groups on the far-left side of the liberal movement, demonstrated against the resignation of Sessions — someone who has very little in common politically and ideologically with the demonstrators.
Thousands of activists marched in dozens of cities, including Birmingham, fearing that Sessions’ departure would mean that the Mueller investigation would be shut down or severely curtailed by Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ former chief of staff whom Trump named as interim attorney general.
In that moment, Session was closer to a being an unlikely hero in the eyes of Trump critics than he was a villain – or at least not the worst of all options on the table.