VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. – Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, giving a recent campaign speech to a suburban Republican club, recalled his 2016 decision to endorse then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a time when many party members were uncertain about the bellicose outsider.
“'Jeff, are you sure?'" he said, recalling questions he got at the time. “But let me ask you: Was I right?” Sessions asked the Mid Alabama Republican Club, which responded with loud applause and cheers.
Sessions is emphasizing his loyalty to Trump's agenda and his record in office as he seeks to reclaim the Alabama Senate seat he held for 20 years before being tapped as the president's first attorney general, a position he was forced to resign when his recusal from the Russia inquiry prompted blistering public criticism from Trump.
The former four-term U.S. senator — and the first to endorse Trump 2016 — faces a competitive primary that will test how much Trump’s censure has damaged his support in deeply red Alabama.
Sessions is part of a crowded field competing in the March 3 GOP primary to challenge U.S. Sen. Doug Jones. Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, state Rep. Arnold Mooney, businessman Stanley Adair and Ruth Page Nelson are also seeking the Republican nomination.
Sessions entered as the front-runner, but many observers expect the race could head to a two-person runoff, with Tuberville and Byrne frequently predicted to claim a runoff spot with Sessions.
After Sessions' speech, Sarah Moseley, 71, waited in a line of folks seeking selfies and handshakes with Sessions to ask him about the recusal decision. She said she has friends who remain upset with Sessions, but she supports him.
“I believe he was doing what he felt like was the right thing,” Moseley said.
She said she "absolutely" plans to vote for Sessions: “I think his service to this country has been exemplary."
But John Lyda, 45, said he plans to vote for Byrne in the primary, citing the congressman's work as a former chancellor of the two-year college system. Lyda said he had questions about Sessions' time as attorney general and “like many Republicans, wish he would have done some things differently."
In his campaign stops, Sessions praises the president's policies on trade, energy, immigration and foreign policies, and derides Democrats' impeachment investigation.
“We are in a big battle for the heart and soul of this country," Sessions said.
“Like President Trump, I believe they want us to defend America's trading interests. I believe they want us to end the lawlessness at the border. ... I believe they want us to be more cautious about deploying our soldiers abroad for long term interventions," Sessions said of Americans.
Trump, who last year called appointing Sessions the “biggest mistake” of his presidency, has said little about the Alabama primary.
"I saw he said very nice things about me last night, but we'll have to see. I haven't made a determination,” Trump said of Sessions in November, when asked if he would intervene in the race.
Trump on Thursday tweeted, “I LOVE ALABAMA!" along with a poll from early December of the Republican front-runners that showed Sessions narrowly leading the field over Tuberville. The Sessions campaign has contended their lead is significantly larger. Byrne was among the Alabama congressional delegation who were Trump's guests when he attended a University of Alabama football game.
Sessions said he doesn't get asked that much about the recusal on the campaign of trail. At a lunch speech to the Opelika Rotary Club, audience members lobbed questions about the national debt and education instead of Trump.
Bill Armistead, a former chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, said Sessions has a long history with Alabama voters before Trump's criticism, noting Sessions didn't even draw a challenger in his last election in 2014.
“He's got good name recognition. He's served as a great United States senator for us, but then you have the Trump factor," Armistead said.
Wearing a Trump-Pence ’20 hat and a Vietnam veteran jacket, retired electrical lineman Winston Sides described himself as a “true Trumpster” after listening to other Senate candidates at a forum in Wetumpka. Sides said he has no problem with Sessions' decision to recuse himself but remains undecided if he’ll vote for him this time.
“Jeff Sessions, really, did he do anything wrong? No. ... But is it going to hurt Jeff? Yes,” Sides said.
Sides said he voted for Sessions in the past but wants to look at other candidates, including Tuberville, before deciding this time.
He said he might vote for Sessions again, or “it may be time for new blood."