Veterans gathered recently beside the USS Alabama battleship on Mobile Bay in a show of support for former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“Let’s hear it for the man of the hour, the once and future senator from Alabama, the honorable veteran Jeff Sessions,” retired Brig. Gen. Richard Allen said in introducing Sessions.
But the crowd was sparse. And only one television camera showed up, even though the appearance was in his hometown of Mobile.
Sessions is fighting for his political life in a Republican runoff for his old Alabama Senate seat. The 73-year-old faces a political newcomer, the former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who has a double-digit advantage, according to recent polling. The winner in Tuesday’s runoff will advance to the general election to take on Sen. Doug Jones, the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate and the GOP’s best shot to win a seat held by a Democrat.
While Sessions is touting local endorsements, his opponent has one from the most popular politician in this deeply red state: President Trump.
Sessions says it’s not up to Washington to dictate the race.
“The president can endorse who he wishes,” he said. “But the people of Alabama will decide this race.”
Sessions finds himself in a completely different position than he was in 2016, when throngs cheered for him in Mobile as he appeared with then-candidate Donald Trump. Sessions was one of the first Deep South politicians to endorse him.
“We have a man here who really helped me,” Trump said at the time. “He’s the one person I sought his counsel because he’s so spot-on.”
Sessions served 20 years in the Senate and was the leading voice against illegal immigration, long before Trump called for a border wall. Sessions argues he remains the candidate most aligned with the president’s agenda.
But he’s most associated now with his troubled tenure in the Trump administration, and his decision to recuse himself from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Sessions was ousted as attorney general in 2018 after being repeatedly mocked by Trump, who’s called Sessions a “disaster.”
“I know that he has his strong feelings about this race,” Sessions said. “I know he’s upset about the long, prolonged investigation that really disrupted his life and, in many ways, made it hard for him to govern effectively.”
Sessions says he was bound to follow the law.
“I did my duty as I saw it,” he said. “And I believe in the long run, it worked out.”
On Saturday, Trump once again took to Twitter in support of Tuberville. “[H]e is a winner who will never let you down,” Trump wrote. “Jeff Sessions is a disaster who has let us all down. We don’t want him back in Washington!”
Sessions responded more forcefully than he has in the past. “My honor and integrity are far more important than these juvenile insults,” he clapped back.
Tuberville’s campaign has sought to exploit the notion that Sessions is now damaged goods.
“You can’t fake it. You’re either strong or you’re not. Jeff Sessions, he’s not,” the former Auburn coach says in an ad set in a gym with weightlifters behind him. “He wasn’t man enough to stand with President Trump when things got tough.”
The ad also shows a clip of Tuberville walking down the steps of Air Force One with Trump on a June trip to Dallas.
Tuberville earned the nickname “the Riverboat Gambler” for taking risks on the football field during his coaching career, but with a polling lead, he has taken few risks in this runoff, which was moved to July from March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Tuberville has refused to debate and is generally avoiding media in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote.
With no political record, he’s faced scrutiny for his role in a hedge fund that defrauded investors, and Sessions has criticized him for living in Florida before coming back to Alabama to run for Senate.
But out on the campaign trail, Tuberville gets the celebrity coach treatment in a state where college football is the holy grail.
“What’s up, Coach Tub?” fans ask in a Facebook video from Tuberville’s visit to a boat parade honoring Trump in Orange Beach over the Fourth of July weekend.
“I need your vote to send a U.S. senator to Washington, D.C., to represent this state, this country and Donald Trump,” Tuberville tells people packed on boats flying Trump 2020 campaign flags.
Back at Battleship Park in Mobile, Reginald Hartz, a veteran who served in the Iraq and Gulf wars, said he’s torn on which Republican to vote for. He’s a Trump supporter but says the president’s demeaning tweets about Sessions aren’t a factor for him.
“Just nitpicking, to me that’s childish,” he said.
Hartz thinks 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 yet you got a career politician versus a guy that’s never set foot and knows very little about politics,” Hartz said.
Whichever candidate wins the GOP runoff will have the advantage heading into November against the Democrat Jones, in a state where Trump has his highest net approval rating in the country.