It’s Sessions Vs. Tuberville In Tuesday’s Republican Runoff For Senate

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A "Vote Here" sign by the entrance to a polling place in Birmingham
Andrew Yeager, WBHM

Alabama voters return to the polls Tuesday after an unusually long primary election season. The primary runoff, originally scheduled for the end of March, was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The biggest race on the ballot is the Republican runoff for U.S. Senate between former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville.

Sessions has been crossing the state the last few weeks, talking about issues he believes will resonate with Republican voters. He recently held a press conference in front of Birmingham’s Woodlawn High School to rail against the school board for canceling a contract with the Church of the Highlands. The megachurch had rented space in two schools for Sunday services. The school board canceled the agreement after the church’s senior pastor liked tweets by the leader of a conservative organization that some interpreted as racist.

“In this great country of ours people have a right to their individual viewpoints,” Sessions said. “Those individual viewpoints cannot be required to be suppressed, silenced before somebody can rent a building with the school board.”

It is the type of issue Sessions has been serving up for years, along with a hard line on immigration, skepticism of free trade and suspicion of China. But in this contest, arguably the first competitive one for Sessions in decades, he has had to contend with the biggest voice in Republican politics right now — President Donald Trump.

Sessions was an early backer of Trump in his 2016 campaign and served as his attorney general before a falling out between the two when Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the election. Sessions said it was required by law, but Trump has attacked Sessions on Twitter and endorsed Tommy Tuberville.

Sessions said he still supports the president’s agenda and is the better advocate for it.

“Look, he’s mad at me. Everybody knows that. He’s decided he’d like to see Tommy Tuberville elected. We know that,” Sessions recently told Mobile radio station WAVH. “But Mr. Tuberville does not know the issues like I do.”

Tuberville, who is making his first run for public office, is happy to play up the friction between Trump and Sessions, saying in a TV ad “Jeff Sessions quit on the president and he failed Alabama.”

Tuberville promotes himself as a tough outsider, ready to take down weak politicians. He speaks little about policy, instead emphasizing his support for President Trump.

These ads have been about the only place the public could see Tuberville during the runoff. He largely avoided media appearances and ignored Sessions’ call for debates. He has faced criticism over his handling of a case involving a football player accused of sexual assault and his involvement in a hedge fund in which his partner pleaded guilty to fraud.

The little public polling that has been done suggests Tuberville is ahead. He also raised more money than Sessions in this most recent reporting period. That potential lead appeared to be big enough that his campaign is comfortable “running out the clock” by keeping a low profile, according to Jacksonville State University political science professor Lori Owens.

Owens said the two candidates are conservative on issues. For instance, opposing abortion rights, favoring lower taxes and supportive of President Trump’s call to “build the wall” on the southern border with Mexico. She said it is partly a contest of style, with Sessions a more calm, Southern gentleman to Tuberville’s gregarious personality.

“What are the voters looking for? Are they looking for someone who is calm and seasoned and has political experience? Or are they looking for a new face, a fresh face, somebody that they think will shake things up?” Owens said.

She is skeptical the president’s endorsement will be the main deciding factor. She said voters have a variety of reasons for choosing their candidate.

“Voters don’t necessarily want you to tell them how to vote. So you can overplay that,” Owens said.

President Trump backed two Alabama Senate candidates who went on to lose — Luther Strange and Roy Moore. The third contest is Tuesday. The winner faces Democratic incumbent Senator Doug Jones in November.