HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Republican voters will head to the polls Tuesday to choose the party’s U.S. Senate nominee. The winner of the runoff will face Democrat Doug Jones in the fall.
The GOP contest is between former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. Tuberville edged Sessions in the March primary, which included a field of seven candidates.
Polls have shown Tuberville ahead and he’s been endorsed by President Donald Trump, but the Sessions campaign says Tuberville’s strategy of avoiding the media over the past few weeks has fueled Sessions’ momentum.
The runoff comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic and more than 26,000 voters had cast absentee ballots as of Monday morning, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s office reported. Merrill has predicted voter turnout Tuesday will be between 17 and 21 percent.
WHNT News 19 spoke to political analyst Jess Brown about the high-stakes race.
Brown said he doesn’t believe the Sessions campaign used its resources to launch broad and consistent attacks against Tuberville, a longtime coach, but a political newcomer.
But Sessions’ campaign spokesman John Rogers faulted Tuberville for his involvement in a failed hedge fund that led to criminal charges against his partner and for alleged lax discipline of a football player facing a criminal charge.
“Jeff Sessions is a tested, trusted, and proven leader,” Rogers said. “As Tuberville has ducked the voters and questions regarding his past scandals, our campaign has seized the momentum going into Election Day on Tuesday.”
A strategist familiar with the Tuberville campaign’s strategy said Monday the campaign is working to protect its lead in the polls, looking to avoid missteps and is appealing directly to voters.
Brown said a combination of factors, including the pandemic and the racial justice movement spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, appears to have led to less campaign coverage and scrutiny of Tuberville.
“As a political novice, and Coach Tuberville is a political novice, he’s had an easier time of it than I ever thought he would,” Brown said.
Sessions served in the U.S. Senate for 20 years before being selected by President Trump to serve as U.S. Attorney General. Trump grew unhappy with Sessions after he recused himself from overseeing an investigation into alleged election assistance by Russia on behalf of the Trump campaign.
Sessions resigned in November 2018 and announced his Senate bid on the final day of qualifying.
“I thought the day he qualified he was the odds-on favorite,” Brown said. “I thought the day we had the first primary he remained the odds-on favorite.”
But, Trump, who has been scathing in his criticism of Sessions has weighed in on the Senate race. Sessions was the first U.S. Senator to endorse then-candidate Trump, but Trump argued Sessions failed to protect him by recusing himself from the Russia probe, which the President labels a “hoax.”
“I can’t think of a single major issue that will be advocated by the Trump Administration that Jeff Sessions will not support, I cannot think of a one,” Brown said.
But Trump favors Tuberville and Brown says that’s the key to this race. It’s not tied to a particular policy or political issue, or even the value of Sessions’ Senate experience and seniority. It’s about Republican voters in Alabama, Brown says, and their loyalty to the President.
“And so they’re not really electing a Senator based on the spectrum of issues that the Senator from Alabama is likely to face,” Brown said. “They’re just going to go to the polls and blindly support the individual endorsed by President Trump.”
Brown said Tuberville has also received strong backing from agribusiness interests in Alabama and supporters at Auburn.
Tuberville has avoided media requests over the past few weeks, confident his campaign is ahead.
“They have had from day one, their campaign is a one-note song — ‘Trump loves us and we love Trump,’” Brown said.
The veteran analyst thinks Sessions’ best chance to score a victory Tuesday is with especially low voter turnout, in the low-double figures.
Brown does expect low turnout, but not enough to turn the tide for Sessions.
“Low turnout and a Tuberville victory, but not as big,” Brown said. “The Tuberville victory won’t be as big as at least some of the pre-election polls are suggesting.”
The polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. To vote in the party primary, voters have to either have voted in the Republican primary, or not voted at all in the primary.