Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville won Alabama’s GOP Senate primary on Tuesday, defeating Jeff Sessions after President Donald Trump endorsed Tuberville instead of his onetime attorney general who had been a close ideological ally.
Tuberville is now the favorite to defeat Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November’s elections, which would be a key Republican pickup in the battle for Senate control. Trump won the deeply conservative, racially polarized state by 28% four years ago.
The race between Tuberville, 65, and Sessions, 73, who had been elected to the Senate four times by Alabama voters and had been a revered political figure in the state before joining the administration, was wholly defined by Trump’s wishes and served as a demonstration of his dominance over the party’s base.
Trump praised Tuberville again not long after The Associated Press called the race.
While Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump in 2016 and provided much of the policy framework to go with Trump’s hard-line anti-immigrant, white nationalist rhetoric, Trump never forgave him for quickly recusing himself, as attorney general, from the investigation into the Russian efforts to influence and skew the 2016 election. Sessions’ move led to Robert Mueller’s appointment as the special counsel to lead the probe that was a prolonged thorn in Trump’s side.
Shortly after the first round of primary voting in March in which no candidate exceeded the 50% vote count needed to win outright, Trump endorsed Tuberville in the runoff. That turned what could have been a close race ― Tuberville had earned 33% of the vote to Sessions’ 32% ― into one in which the ex-football coach was heavily favored.
Trump reiterated the endorsement several times on Twitter, prompting late-night responses from Sessions.
Tuberville, a political neophyte who also coached at the University of Mississippi, Texas Tech and the University of Cincinnati, spent most of the runoff avoiding press coverage. He also declined to debate Sessions, relying on Trump’s endorsements and attacks on Sessions to power him to victory. He has mostly adopted standard-issue Trump-era GOP positions, though he has criticized the president’s handling of trade with China.
In a statement, Jones never mentioned Tuberville by name.
“Washington already has plenty of people who fight along partisan lines and nothing much seems to get done,” Jones said, before noting he’s sponsored 17 pieces of legislation later signed into law by Trump. “The choice before the voters is an unprepared hyper-partisan that will add to the divide in Washington, or my proven track-record to find common ground and get things done.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee blasted Tuberville, calling him “unprepared and unproven.”
“Tommy Tuberville would be nothing more than a lackey for his Washington party leaders in the Senate. His campaign strategy has been to dodge the press and avoid tough questions, but this much is clear: he’ll join his party in trying yet again to take away health care protections for the nearly 1 million Alabamians with a pre-existing condition, and can’t be counted on to fight for the needs of Alabama families,” DSCC spokesperson Helen Kalla said.
Jones was elected to the Senate seat against scandal-ridden Republican Roy Moore in a December 2017 special election to fill out the remainder of the term that Sessions had won in 2014. Jones is considered the most vulnerable senator in the country in this year’s vote.
Republicans hold a 53-47 edge in the Senate, and an upset Jones victory would smooth the Democratic party’s path to claiming the chamber’s majority.