Jeff Sessions’ political comeback has been foiled by a college football hero and President Donald Trump’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for revenge.
The longtime Republican stalwart fell short on Tuesday in his bid to reclaim the U.S. Senate seat he once held for decades, defeated by former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville in Alabama’s runoff election. It’s a bitter end to a years-long political free-fall for Sessions, who in just three years went from top Trump ally and U.S. attorney general to MAGA persona non grata after he recused himself from the Trump-Russia investigation.
“Jeff Sessions is a disaster who has let us all down. We don’t want him back in Washington!” Trump tweeted the weekend before the runoff.
And the day before the election, Tuberville promoted a robocall recorded by Trump that championed him and slammed Sessions. “We had the Jeff Sessions thing, we gave it a shot, I had no idea it could be as bad as it was,” Trump said in the call. “But he had no clue. And he just let it get away from him. It’s really a shame.”
Indeed, the president never forgave Sessions for stepping away from the Russia investigation and hasn’t been shy about publicly trashing and mocking him, both before he stepped down as attorney general in 2018 and after kicking off his Senate comeback.
That dynamic put Alabama Republicans in the difficult spot of siding with Trump or with Sessions, who maintained close ties in the state’s GOP circles. Trump endorsed Tuberville in March, saying on Twitter “He is a REAL LEADER who will never let MAGA/KAG, or our Country, down!”
The feud between Sessions and Trump only grew more tense after CNN reported that Trump planned to rally for Tuberville ahead of the July runoff, though the rally failed to materialize in the wake of the president’s much-criticized rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
But like he had done for months, Sessions responded to Trump’s slight with the equivalent of a smile and a seemingly endless patience for being humiliated by his old ally. Others in the Alabama GOP ranks haven’t taken the president’s intervention as diplomatically, with Trump’s compulsive badmouthing of the longtime senator causing one county GOP chairman to tell The Daily Beast last month he was “pissed off about it.”
After Trump attacked him on Twitter again days before the runoff, Sessions responded that he has
“taken the road less travelled. Not sought fame or fortune.”
“My honor and integrity are far more important than these juvenile insults,” Sessions tweeted. “Your scandal ridden candidate is too cowardly to debate. As you know, Alabama does not take orders from Washington.”
Sessions’ criticism of Tuberville mounted earlier this month after The New York Times published a detailed account of the coach’s key role in a hedge fund that the newspaper reported resulted in fraud allegations and a lawsuit.
While Tuberville had the mystique of being the former Auburn University football coach and was undoubtedly powered by a section of the Trump base that has also soured on Sessions, he lacked the longtime connections that Sessions had built among the stalwarts within the state GOP. But that mattered little in a GOP era where allegiance to the president, and his corresponding support, has become the gold standard.
“Jeff, you had your chance & you blew it. Recused yourself ON DAY ONE (you never told me of a problem), and ran for the hills,” Trump tweeted in May during a social media spat with his former appointee.
Despite Trump’s frequent public shredding of Sessions, the Alabama Republican hid from the narrative that, in standing up for himself, he was standing up against the president. In his sharpest tweet ever against Trump’s continued ranting about his performance as attorney general, Sessions told Trump “you’re damn fortunate” that he recused himself and said, “Your personal feelings don't dictate who Alabama picks as their senator, the people of Alabama do.”
Sessions appeared eager to balance those words with the effusive boosterism shown by most Trump-era Republicans. After the Tulsa rally last month, Sessions tweeted praise for Trump’s “incredible drive, understanding of the history and principles that made America great.”
“Masterful! Unleashed! Winning message!! @JoeBiden cannot match this. Game on!” Sessions posted.
Sessions’ loss will likely further unite Republicans in their attempt to unseat Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) in November. Jones won a narrow victory to Sessions’ old seat in 2017 by beating archconservative GOP nominee Roy Moore, whose campaign collapsed amid allegations he preyed on underage girls in the 1970s and 1980s. Given the unique circumstances surrounding Jones’ victory, the seat is seen as overwhelmingly likely to return to GOP hands, a boost for the party as it tries to defend vulnerable incumbents elsewhere and maintain control of the Senate.