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Sessions vies for Senate comeback in race shadowed by Trump

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Seeking a political comeback, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to beat out ex-college football coach Tommy Tuberville in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff and reclaim the Alabama Senate seat he held for decades. To do that, Sessions also has to go through President Donald Trump.

Trump has endorsed Tuberville, whose name recognition comes from his time on the sidelines at Auburn University, and turned decisively against his former Cabinet member, making direct appeals for Alabama voters to reject Sessions's candidacy. “Do not trust Jeff Sessions,” Trump tweeted this spring. “He let our Country down.” And he weighed in again Saturday on Twitter, calling Tuberville “a winner who will never let you down” and castigating Sessions as “a disaster who has let us all down. We don't want him back in Washington.”

Sessions safely held the Senate seat for 20 years before resigning to lead Trump's Justice Department. Their relationship soured after Sessions withdrew from the investigation of Russia interference in the 2016 presidential election, a move that infuriates Trump to this day. Sessions said he had no choice because he participated in Trump’s 2016 campaign and could have been a potential subject or witness.

He has asked voters to look past the feud. “I’m calling on the people of Alabama and I’m saying this. You know me. You know I can be trusted,” Sessions said during a campaign stop this past week.

“I have stood with you. I have advanced our values and I’m asking you now to stand with me and make sure that the seat from Alabama in the United States Senate is not a potted plant, not an empty suit and is somebody who knows the issues and will fight for them.”

The winner of the runoff will take on the incumbent, Democrat Doug Jones, in a race with major implications for Senate control.

Republicans are defending 25 of the 38 Senate seats in play this year. Democrats must gain at least three to capture the majority. It's a difficult but achievable task as they also try to win back the White House. But their path becomes significantly steeper if Republicans are able to take the Alabama seat, which Jones captured in a 2017 special election contest that was upended by sexual misconduct allegations against the GOP nominee, Roy Moore.

In the weeks leading up to the runoff, Sessions has escalated his attacks on Tuberville, questioning both his involvement in a hedge fund in which Tuberville's partner pleaded guilty to fraud and Tuberville's handling of a case where a football player was accused of statutory rape. Tuberville's campaign told The New York Times that his involvement in the hedge fund was a mistake that he has paid for, and has defended Tuberville's handling of the player's case.

Sessions has also derided Tuberville as a “tourist," because he was until recently registered to vote in Florida.

A political newcomer, Tuberville is armed both with Trump’s endorsement and the state-wide name recognition that comes from the Auburn job. Believing he has a comfortable lead, Tuberville has turned to a familiar page in the football playbook, looking to run out the clock in the final days.

His campaign declined to make Tuberville available for an interview or disclose any of his appearances in the week leading up to the primary. He has declined Sessions’ multiple challenges to a debate, despite initially saying that he would participate.

“Jeff Sessions was a disaster. It’s time to send a message to Jeff Sessions that President Trump does not want him or his cronies in the swamp,” Tuberville wrote on Twitter last month.

Jack Campbell, a political consultant and talk radio host who supports Tuberville, said Trump's disavowal of Sessions has become the chief issue of the campaign.

“It’s totally the Trump recusal issue," Campbell said. "I think that’s it in a nutshell.”

Sessions had been the first senator to endorse Trump, donning a red “Make America Great Again” hat and infusing the 2016 campaign with a dose of Washington credibility. Their alliance solidified as Trump adopted the hard-line immigration proposals that Sessions had championed for years in the Senate.

But in a twist of political irony, the president who remade the Republican Party in Sessions's image is now trying to push him out of it. Trump planned to hold a rally for Tuberville in the campaign’s closing weeks, but called it off due to concerns about the resurgence of coronavirus cases and the potential for a repeat of his embarrassingly low attended campaign event in Oklahoma.

Alabama-based political consultant David Mowery said Sessions' change of fortune is “almost mind-boggling." Sessions once held the Senate seat so securely he didn’t even draw a challenger.

“He is fighting for his political life, basically against the president’s Twitter account,” said Mowery. He said it is hard to overestimate Trump's influence in Alabama. Sixty-two percent of statewide voters supported Trump in 2016, and Mowery quipped that Trump is “about 2 points behind Jesus" in popularity among state Republicans.

Tuberville led Sessions by 2 percentage points in the crowded March primary but neither reached the threshold needed to avoid a runoff. The third-place finisher, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, has not endorsed in the race.

The primary was in March, but the runoff as delayed until summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mowery said the Tuberville campaign feels confident, “but the question is, as always, who votes. That question is totally different in a pandemic when people are being encouraged to vote absentee.”

Sessions is banking on his long history with voters.

David Mosley of Ozark greeted Sessions beside the bins of peanuts and watermelons after a campaign stop at Sweet Creek Farm Market. Moseley said he plans to vote for Sessions.

He said Sessions visited with his units during both of his National Guard deployments, asking the deployed soldiers how he could help them.

“That stuck out to me as someone who cares,” Mosely said.

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Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.