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Jeff Sessions’ return could be rocky, thanks to Trump

President is a major factor in GOP primaries, which could be a problem

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to run for his old Senate seat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions’ decision to return to politics might be rockier than he anticipated, given his clashes with President Donald Trump. 

Loyalty to the president is a central factor in GOP primaries and, as Trump’s attorney general, Sessions drew the president’s ire for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Alabama GOP Rep. Mike D. Rogers, who had not spoken directly with Sessions, told CQ Roll Call last week, “I don’t really see how [Sessions] can get a toehold this late in the process.”

“And then there’s the fact that the president of the United States despises him, has openly said he will vigorously campaign against him,” Rogers added. “That’s an awfully steep hill in Alabama where, as you know, Donald Trump has the highest favorables of any state in the union."

It’s not clear how much Trump would be involved in the crowded GOP primary. Sessions has yet to file to run for his old Senate seat, but a source familiar with his plans confirmed Wednesday night that he plans to run. The deadline to file with the state party is Friday. Multiple GOP sources have said recently that Sessions was considering a run. First elected to the Senate in 1996, he left in 2017 to become Trump’s attorney general. 

Sessions’ decision to run could shake up the crowded GOP primary field, but some of the top candidates have indicated they will remain in the race — and try to tar Sessions as insufficiently loyal to Trump.

One of them, GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne, spoke to Sessions last week, before Byrne filed to run with the state party, according to a source with knowledge of their conversation. Byrne has pledged to stay in the race.

“Alabama deserves a Senator who will stand with the President and won’t run away and hide from the fight,” Byrne said in a statement Wednesday night.

Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville slammed Sessions in a tweet following news he would jump in the race.

Jeff Sessions entrance into this race is not a surprise. He’s been out of the swamp for less than two years, and now he’s itching to go back,” Tuberville tweeted. “He’s another career politician that the voters of Alabama will reject. As AG, he failed the President at his point of greatest need.”

Tuberville’s statement is a nod to Trump’s vexation with Sessions, and it’s unclear if the president’s tirades against his former attorney general could be an issue in the race.

Not everyone is convinced that Sessions’ clashes with Trump would be a problem. A poll conducted by the Alabama-based firm Cygnal in June found that 58 percent of Republican voters had a favorable view of Sessions, while 37 percent viewed him unfavorably.  

Alabama’s senior senator, Republican Richard C. Shelby, told reporters last week that he did not know if Trump’s disdain for Sessions would hurt his chances in the race, but he said of his former colleague: “He’s been very popular in the state for a long time.”

Shelby also said he would endorse Sessions if he jumped into the race.

Republican strategist David Ferguson said Wednesday night that Sessions is “generally well-respected by the people of the state.” Ferguson said he had seen recent polling that showed voters support both Trump and Sessions. 

Sessions did reference his relationship with Trump in a speech at Northwestern University on Tuesday.

“I had never watched (Trump’s) program on TV, I didn’t know how many people he’d fired — maybe I’d have been more careful,” Sessions said according to The Daily Northwestern. “The president is allowed to fire you, but fortunately he doesn’t get to shoot you.”

Sessions starts the race with the nearly $2.5 million that was in his campaign account when he resigned to lead the Justice Department. Byrne ended the most recent fundraising quarter on Sept. 30 with $2.5 million in the bank, while Tuberville had $1.4 million.

Alabama represents the GOP’s best Senate pickup opportunity in 2020, a race Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Leans Republican.

The Democratic incumbent, Doug Jones, narrowly won a Dec. 2017 special election runoff to fill the remainder of Sessions’ Senate term. He defeated former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct involving young women. Moore is running again, but he has fallen behind the rest of the field in fundraising.

Byrne, Moore, Tuberville and the two of the other top fundraisers in the race, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and state Rep. Arnold Mooney, have all filed with the state party and qualified as candidates, according to the Alabama GOP’s website.

Some Republican consultants and lawmakers have questioned why Sessions was getting into the race.

One GOP consultant with experience in Alabama, who is not affiliated with any of the candidates, said Byrne and Tuberville had proven strengths as candidates, which have quelled fears that Moore could emerge from a crowded primary as the nominee.

“I don’t think there’s this need for Jeff Sessions to come and rescue the state anymore,” the consultant said.

Jennifer Shutt and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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