MONTGOMERY, Ala. – To reclaim the Alabama Senate seat he held for 20 years, Jeff Sessions must first get through a competitive GOP primary with challengers eager to capitalize on his very public falling out with President Donald Trump.
The former attorney general is banking on his long history in state politics as he tries to persuade Republican voters that he is the best candidate to advance Trump's agenda.
“I am the same Jeff Sessions that faithfully and honorably and vigorously defended Alabama values in the U.S. Senate before. I am determined to be even more effective when I return to the Senate if the people allow me to," Sessions said in an interview.
Sessions gave up the Senate seat when he was appointed Trump's first attorney general, a position he was forced to resign after his recusal from the Russia inquiry sparked blistering criticism from the president. Sessions had been the first senator to endorse Trump— donning a red Make America Great Again hat and infusing the 2016 campaign with Washington credibility. But in a twist of political irony, the president's public scolding now threatens Sessions' political comeback for a seat he held securely for two decades.
At a candidate forum in Florence, Alabama, that Sessions did not attend, retired restaurant owner Yara Ruther, 67, was shopping for someone else to support in the seven-person field.
“He did not support Trump. That's a deal breaker," Ruther said, slicing her hand horizontally through the air to emphasize that she won't vote for Sessions this time.
Sessions said Trump wasn't happy about the recusal, but he did so because Department of Justice regulations required it. Still, Sessions has maintained his allegiance to the president.
“Where were my opponents when Donald Trump was in a titanic, billion-dollar campaign for the presidency of the United States, where our court system was a stake, our taxes and regulations were all at stake?" Sessions said.
“The people of Alabama rallied to Trump and I was leading the charge. And I haven't changed," Sessions said.
He'll face 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 community activist Ruth Page Nelson in the Republican primary Tuesday. The winner will face Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November.
Sessions greeted diners over plates of chicken, dressing and fried okra during a Thursday campaign stop at the Blue Plate Cafe, a meat-and-three restaurant in Madison County.
“I really believe in the experience he has and what he brings he to the table," said Scott Woodard, a test manager at Redstone Arsenal, a mammoth facility that houses the Army's missile programs.
The Alabama race has turned into a bitter slug fest to claim a slot in the anticipated March 31 runoff between the top two GOP finishers. A runoff is required unless one candidate claims more than 50% of the primary vote Tuesday. It has also become a race to embrace Trump, with candidates jockeying to portray themselves as the most loyal to the president.
Tuberville, harnessing the name recognition from years as a college football coach in the state, and Byrne, the first Republican to announce for the seat, have emerged as two of Sessions' strongest challengers.
"I'm a conservative. I’m a fighter. I vote with President Trump 97% of the time,” Byrne says on the campaign trail.
A Byrne campaign television spot dismisses Sessions — portrayed in the ad by a diminutive actor clad in a baseball hat — as someone who “let the President down and got fired."
Tuberville — who has said Trump was sent by God to save the United States — issued this statement at the start of Trump's impeachment trial: “As attorney general, Jeff Sessions handed the ball to the other team and walked off the field the moment play started getting rough."
Sessions' campaign fired back at both in an ad. He noted that Byrne once called Trump unfit to lead the ticket after the 2016 release of Trump's vulgar outtakes on “Access Hollywood" about grabbing women. He called Tuberville a “tourist" who moved from Florida to run for Senate.
Moore, who narrowly lost the 2017 race to Jones amid sexual misconduct accusations that he denied, is making another bid for the seat.
The Republican firebrand, who as chief justice defiantly opposed gay marriage and defended the public display of the Ten Commandments, has maintained a following among some religious-minded voters.
“Our religious liberty is presently under assault as Christians," he said.
Trump has so far stayed mostly quiet on the race, a silence that is considered good news for the Sessions camp — provided that it holds.
“I never doubted this was going to be a tough race. We’ve got multiple candidates who have worked hard for a long time,” Sessions said Tuesday at a north Alabama campaign stop.
Before heading out to the next stop, Sessions, while stressing his record, said the Alabama race is “not about the past" but who can hit the ground running to support Trump and the state in Washington.
“I would say to them it’s about the future. Who can do the best right now?"