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In Comeback Senate Bid, Jeff Sessions Backs Trump — Despite Public Falling-Out


Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is running for his old Senate seat in Alabama. He's in a crowded field seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Democrat Doug Jones, considered the most vulnerable Democrat up for reelection. Sessions' argument is that he's the one best suited to fight for Donald Trump's agenda, despite his very public falling out with the president. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Saying you're behind President Trump goes a long way in Alabama. Even a local school board candidate declared his devotion to the president during a recent speech at a Republican women's group in south Alabama. And members of South Baldwin Republican Women say it's certainly a factor in the Senate primary.

MARGE BUMANN: I think that they should stand by the president.

ANNE SAUNDERS: A Trump supporter because we need unity.

SANDRA SPICER: I love my president. I love my party.

ELLIOTT: That was Marge Bumann, Anne Saunders and Sandra Spicer, active Republican voters who say Trump's presidency has been good for the economy. The top contenders in the March 3 Alabama Senate primary are Jeff Sessions, Congressman Bradley Byrne and political newcomer Tommy Tuberville, a former football coach at Auburn University. The twice-ousted former chief justice of Alabama, Roy Moore, is also running. He lost the 2017 race to Democrat Doug Jones, and his campaign has struggled to gain traction in this GOP primary. For the others, the message is about who is the Trumpiest (ph).

Tommy Tuberville.


TOMMY TUBERVILLE: God sent us Donald Trump because God knew we were in trouble. I'm going to stand with President Donald Trump on building the wall.

ELLIOTT: Bradley Byrne uses a Trump shoutout at the White House in his ad.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Bradley Byrne - how about him? Thank you, Bradley.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Fighting for President Trump; a 97% pro-Trump record.

ELLIOTT: And Jeff Sessions' ads show him onstage standing beside Trump early in the 2016 presidential campaign.


JEFF SESSIONS: Others talk big about Trump, hoping to get your vote. But talk is cheap. I've been with him from the start because...

ELLIOTT: Sessions is well-known. He served 20 years in the U.S. Senate, earning a reputation as a leading voice against illegal immigration. But voters now associate him most with his troubled tenure in the Trump administration. He stepped down as attorney general in 2018 after being repeatedly mocked by Trump, angry that Sessions recused himself from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Sessions has had to answer for that on the campaign trail, like this call to the "Leland Live" podcast on Birmingham's Talk Radio 99.5.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And I just want to know why President Trump hasn't backed you yet, No. 1. And No. 2, why didn't you stand with him when - during the investigation, when you were attorney general.

SESSIONS: Well, I'm glad you asked that, really. I have stood with President Trump all the way through.

ELLIOTT: Sessions explains he was following the law and says it was his ideas that helped Trump win in the first place.


SESSIONS: (Laughter) I have been Donald Trump's No. 1 supporter. Before he announced, I was advancing the agenda that he believes in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...You are going to be on a commercial. Thank you.

BRADLEY BYRNE: Bradley Byrne, good to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Great to see you.

ELLIOTT: Congressman Bradley Byrne from the Mobile area has come to Madison in north Alabama to court voters who might not be familiar with him. Traditionally seen as a main-street Republican, Byrne has faced criticism for now running a Senate campaign that appeals more to the nation's political divide. Byrne rejects the notion that he's angling for political gains.

BYRNE: It's not true. I vote with the president 97% of the time because I read each and every bill. My staff and I do our homework on each and every bill, and I believe that, on substance, he's right. And I think this impeachment effort last year was totally bogus.

ELLIOTT: At Big B Bar-B-Que in Alexander City, Ala., big-game trophies adorn the wood-paneled walls.


TUBERVILLE: What's up, guys? Good to see you. How are y'all doing?

ELLIOTT: Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville is here to mingle and take selfies with football fans. Pete Rodgers and Roger Morris are cattle farmers from Weogufka, Ala.

ROGER MORRIS: Coach, we need some backbone in Washington.

TUBERVILLE: You fixing to get it. I'm telling you.

PETE RODGERS: I tell you, we're going to be behind you 100%.

TUBERVILLE: Well, that's the reason I'm doing this. I tell you what - I am so sick of career politicians, I can't stand it.


ELLIOTT: Morris likes what he hears from Coach, as he calls Tuberville. He's frustrated that Sessions is even in the race.

MORRIS: Sessions is a wimp. He's got no backbone. He needs to just get out of the way.

ELLIOTT: Polls indicate a race so close that no one will win an outright majority on Super Tuesday, likely forcing a GOP Senate runoff on March 31 to face Democrat Doug Jones in November. President Trump has yet to weigh in on who he might be supporting.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Alexander City, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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