A path out of the political wilderness has opened for Jeff Sessions.
On Tuesday night, he came one step closer to reclaiming his old job—U.S. senator for Alabama—with a top-two finish in the state’s Republican Senate primary. With no candidate hitting 50 percent of the vote, Sessions and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville will duke it out in a head-to-head runoff election scheduled for March 31.
The winner will take on Sen. Doug Jones, the Democrat who defeated former judge and accused sex offender Roy Moore in a 2017 special election to replace Sessions, who that year left the seat he held for two decades to become President Trump’s attorney general.
The Alabama conservative, the first senator to endorse Trump’s 2016 campaign, was a close member of Trump’s inner circle and seemed poised for a long run in the administration when he took office. But Sessions’ decision in March 2017 to recuse himself from the budding Department of Justice investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia was something the president was unable to move past.
As the Russia investigation intensified, Trump seemingly blamed the turn of events on Sessions, publicly castigating his attorney general in increasingly vindictive ways. After months of abuse, Sessions submitted his resignation at Trump’s request in November 2018.
With Jones—an incumbent Democrat in a state Trump won by 30 points—on the ballot again in 2020, a quick path back to politics was clear for Sessions. A year after his resignation, Sessions announced a Senate bid with a direct-to-camera video interspersed with praise of the president who scorned him and old video reel of them together at a rally.
“When I left President Trump’s cabinet, did I write a tell-all book? No. Did I go on CNN and attack the president? Nope. Have I said a cross word about our president? Not one time, and I’ll tell you why,” said Sessions in the spot. “First, that would be dishonorable. I was there to serve his agenda, not mine. Second, the president’s doing a great job for America and Alabama, and he has my strong support.”
Throughout his primary campaign, Sessions plodded on with his pro-Trump message even as his rivals relentlessly resurfaced Trump’s attacks on him for his performance as attorney general. An ad from Congressman Bradley Byrne—running as an unabashedly Trumpian candidate even though he said Trump was “unfit for office” in October 2016—featured a woman saying Sessions “let the president down and got fired.” Another rival, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, ran an ad charging that Sessions “deserted” Trump.
But Sessions led in most polls of the primary, largely on the strength of his long conservative record and name ID in the state. With his showing on Tuesday, Sessions advances but could face trouble in a one-on-one match-up with Tuberville, who has campaigned as a staunchly pro-Trump political outsider who’s also a deeply familiar face in this football-obsessed state.
And Moore, running again after his disastrous campaign in 2017, finished as little more than an asterisk—he barely cracked 10 percent in most precincts.