Sessions, an Alabama icon, faces uncertain path to Senate
Washington – Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to reclaim his old Senate seat from Alabama, where he’s been a conservative icon and dominant vote-getter since the 1990s.
But it’s already clear that President Donald Trump’s enmity toward him, along with an established field of competitors, means he’ll have to battle his way to the Republican nomination.
And early indications are that he may not have robust help from former GOP Senate colleagues, either.
“The people in Alabama will figure this out,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told The Associated Press on Thursday when asked if it’s a good idea for Sessions to run. “We do want to get that seat back, and I’m hopeful we will.”
Several knowledgeable Republicans told the AP that Sessions, 72, who held the seat for two decades, plans to announce Thursday that he’ll run for the GOP Senate nomination.
Sessions was senator until becoming Trump’s first attorney general in 2017. Democrat Doug Jones won the seat from the deep-red state in a special election later that year, defeating Republican Roy Moore, the right-wing lightning rod who faced allegations of sexual misconduct.
Jones is the most vulnerable Senate Democrat facing reelection next year. Both sides see the battle over the Alabama seat as crucial as Republicans fight to retain the majority in the chamber, which they now control 53-47.
Trump turned on Sessions because Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russia’s connections with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Though Sessions was the first senator to back Trump’s upstart campaign and worked to champion conservative causes as attorney general, the president frequently raged at him, tweeting explicit attacks on Sessions, sometimes refusing to say his name aloud in meetings and declaring that picking him for the Cabinet was his biggest regret in office.
And while politicians, operatives and analysts expect Sessions to become an immediate frontrunner for the GOP nomination, the big unknown is how Trump and his Alabama supporters will react.
Sessions has kept a low-profile since leaving office but Trump’s anger has not cooled, as he has still been known to disparage the former attorney general in private conversations, according to a White House official and a Republican close to the West Wing who are not authorized to speak publicly about the discussions.
When rumors picked up that Sessions may run for his old seat, Trump expressed unhappiness at the prospect and mused about campaigning against his former friend, the people said.
“If Trump takes on Sessions, I don’t know what happens,” Marty Connors, a former chair of the Alabama Republican Party, said in an interview.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is close to Trump, said Sessions was “a great senator” but said he would stay out of the race.
“Jeff knows what he’s getting into,” Graham said. “The campaign’s going to be a lot about what President Trump said about Jeff Sessions. I’m sure he’s ready to handle that.”
Some Republicans are already worried that Sessions’ entry into the race could make it easier for Moore to make it to a runoff election, which would be required if no candidate wins a majority.
Sessions’ candidacy could further divide the vote of Republicans who oppose Moore.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama said he would support Sessions.
“Absolutely. Jeff Sessions is a friend,” Shelby said. “I worked with him every day up here for 20 years. He’s a man of integrity and, of course, he’ll have to run his own race and, you know, that’s up to the people of Alabama, but I believe he’ll be a formidable candidate.”
GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas also backed his former colleague.
“I’ll be doing everything I can to encourage him,” Cornyn said. “The problem, as I’ve pointed out to him, is I think your life is going to be very difficult unless you work out some sort of reconciliation with the president. I hope that happens.”
Candidates already contending for the nomination include former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville and Rep. Bradley Byrne. Both are already criticizing Sessions of insufficiently defending Trump.
Jones has already run social media fundraising ads, with a photo of Sessions next to McConnell with the caption, “Too extreme. Too divisive.”
“You’ve got somebody else jumping in there that the president of the United States has said it was the biggest mistake he’s ever made by appointing him,” Jones said during an interview on SiriusXM’s “The Joe Madison Show.”
On a stop in New Hampshire, Vice President Mike Pence was asked by a reporter whether he would campaign for Sessions if he wins his party’s Senate nomination.
“We’ll let the people of Alabama make that decision,” Pence said. “I’ve seen those news accounts today on the way here, but I can tell you, our focus today in New Hampshire, our focus every day going forward is going to be on making sure that President Donald Trump gets four more years in the White House.”
Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, and Jonathan Lemire in Washington contributed to this report.