Jeff Sessions Senate bid: Can he overcome Trump?

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On Thursday, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he will campaign to reclaim a Senate seat in Alabama he held for more than 20 years before joining the Trump administration. Sessions was one of the few establishment Republicans to endorse Trump early in his campaign and was rewarded with the top law enforcement job in the country after Trump became president. 

Things turned sour quickly, however, when Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russia’s tampering of the 2016 election, which led to the Mueller investigation. Trump called hiring Sessions the “biggest mistake” of his first term. Sessions resigned at the president’s request the day after the 2018 midterms. 

Alabama’s Senate vacancy was filled by Democrat Doug Jones after a special election to replace Sessions in 2017. Jones won an upset victory in the deep-red state over Republican Roy Moore, whose campaign was mired by allegations of sexual abuse and child molestation.

In order to return to Congress, Sessions would have to beat out several other Republicans  — including Moore — in a primary before facing Jones in the general election.

Why there’s debate

Republicans see unseating Jones as a key part of holding control of the Senate in 2020, since it could offset a seat that might be lost elsewhere in the country. Ordinarily, a candidate like Sessions — who has a long history in the state and a well-established conservative track record — would be an obvious boost. But the president’s fallout without Sessions complicates things.

Trump is the face of the Republican Party and is enormously popular in Alabama, but so is Sessions, at least historically. Some political experts believe a public rebuke from the president would be a death blow to Sessions’s campaign. However, Trump’s chosen candidate in the 2017 primary lost to Moore, who went on to lose in the general election despite the president’s backing.

Republicans have a strong chance of taking back Alabama’s Senate seat in 2020, but the involvement of Sessions creates potential scenarios where Democrats could win. Trump could weaken Sessions during the primary, but that raises the risk that Moore emerges to face Jones again. Sessions could also survive the primary, but be vulnerable in the general election without the backing of Trump supporters. 

What’s next

Alabama’s Republican primary is scheduled for March 3. If no one receives a 50 percent share of the vote — a strong possibility with so many candidates contending — a runoff between the top two candidates will be held. Whichever Republican emerges will face Jones in the general election on Nov. 5, 2020.

Perspectives

Trump has the power to block Sessions

“If [Trump] does tweet something like, hypothetically, ‘Failed AG Jeff Sessions wants to come back to the Senate? I vote NO,’ it's hard to see how Sessions could overcome that with a Republican electorate as pro-Trump as the one in Alabama.” — Chris Cillizza, CNN

Trump’s influence has failed in Alabama before

“If the president believes he can help dictate the outcome of Alabama’s Republican primary, simply by making his preferences known, I’d remind Trump that he’s already failed twice in this area, and it’s hardly a stretch to think he could fail again.” — Steve Benen, MSNBC

The loyalties of Alabama Republicans will be tested

“His entry in the race will test Alabamans long-time support of Sessions with their real-time adoration of Trump, who enjoys some of his highest approval ratings in the nation in the state.” — Susan Davis, NPR

Sessions turns the race into a national story, which could be harmful for Republicans

“News of Mr. Sessions’s decision to run startled and dismayed national Republicans, who had hoped that he would step aside to avoid the possibility of being vilified by Mr. Trump — and to spare them the headache of a nationalized race in a state they hope to win back.” — Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman, New York Times

Sessions entering the race is a huge win for Democrats

“It tremendously helps Doug Jones. … I don’t think there’s anything else he can enjoy more than an intramural bloodletting in the Republican primary.” — Auburn University history professor Wayne Flynt to AL.com

Sessions might struggle in a close contest 

“The former senator is not accustomed to competitive elections, and this could be the toughest race he’s ever run.” — James Arkin, Politico

The campaign will be a distraction ahead of a crucial election

“Sessions is going to become one of the president’s favorite targets and distractions in this cycle. Sessions’ entry further splits an already crowded GOP Senate primary field, slightly increasing the odds of Roy Moore making it to a runoff and getting the nomination. — Jim Geraghty, National Review

Sessions has a long conservative track record

“Sessions has plenty going for him in the race and will rely on his name recognition and conservative bona fides during a two-decade history representing the state in the Senate.” — Elliot Hannon, Slate

The GOP is at risk of running Moore again in the general election

“What happens if Trump can’t unite Republican primary voters in Alabama around a candidate and then a problematic one like Moore, with a dedicated base, rises out of the chaos again? Could Republicans lose Alabama twice? And would Trump be blamed for it?” — Amber Phillips, Washington Post

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Jay Reeves/AP

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