HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - The field of Republicans seeking to challenge Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones is now a little less crowded.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who entered the race in June, announced Sunday night he's no longer a candidate.
Jeff Sessions, who represented Alabama in the U.S. Senate for 20 years, announced on the last day of qualifying in early November he is seeking his old seat.
In his announcement, Merrill cited Sessions' presence in the race. The statement reads, in part:
"With Senator Sessions' late entry into this race, we have come to realize that a crowded Republican primary only benefits Doug Jones and the out of touch liberal Democrats.
"Therefore, after thoughtful consideration, much prayer, some honest discussions with my family and campaign team, I have decided to suspend my campaign for the United State Senate, effective immediately."
Merrill had argued he was the only conservative in the field who'd shown he could win a statewide race, but with Sessions' arrival, that argument disappeared. Merrill's campaign said Monday his name will not appear on the ballot for the March 3 primary because the withdrawal took place before the ballot printing deadline. The campaign also said the suspension is permanent, that he will not reenter the race.
WHNT News 19 political analyst Jess Brown predicted last month that Sessions' presence would do the most harm to another South Alabama candidate in the race, Mobile-area U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne.
"One of the strengths Congressman Byrne has is he has an advantage in terms of raising money in D.C. federal lobbyists," Brown said last month. But, Brown said, with the support of U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby that advantage could now be with Sessions.
"I sense a lot of the D.C. federal lobbying money is going to gravitate to Sessions," Brown said.
After Sunday night's announcement, Byrne praised Merrill's work as Secretary of State.
I’m confident @JohnHMerrill will continue to be a strong leader and voice for Alabama. Rebecca and I wish him and Cindy the best of luck and look forward to working with him to make Alabama a better place to live, work, and raise a family.
— Bradley Byrne (@BradleyByrne) December 2, 2019
Sessions, who had a tense relationship with President Trump during his tenure as attorney general, also praised Merrill's work on voting and called him a friend.
I want to congratulate @JohnHMerrill on running a strong race, and for his dedication to the people of Alabama. No one has worked harder to prevent voter fraud, and protect the security of our elections. John, you're a conservative fighter, and I'm proud to call you a friend.
— Jeff Sessions (@jeffsessions) December 2, 2019
The field of Republicans running for the U.S. Senate seat in 2020 includes Stanley Adair, Bradley Byrne, Arnold Mooney, Roy Moore, Ruth Page Nelson, Jeff Sessions, and Tommy Tuberville.
Mooney also praised Merrill in a statement sent to WHNT News 19.
“John Merrill is a man who cares deeply about Alabama and serving our state, and I appreciate his contribution," Mooney said. "I continue to look forward to a great exchange of ideas in the primary to determine who is the best conservative to beat Jones.”
The primary is March 3. A runoff, if needed, is set for March 31.
Updated at 1:45 p.m., Dec. 3, to include Mooney statement