Sunday, July 26, 2020

Race of the Day- Alabama U.S. Senate

Alabama U.S. Senate

100 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2016 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Leans Republican

It would be hard to find any Senate seat in the country that involve as many twists and turns over the past five years than this particular one in Alabama. Indeed, it is the only one this cycle in which Republicans have a decent shot of flipping a seat. The GOP is clearly counting on a victory here in one of their strongest states to mitigate against the loss of seats elsewhere in the country in the hopes of somehow maintaining a Senate majority.

This story really began early in 2016 when popular four term Republican Jeff Sessions became the first U.S. Senator to endorse Donald Trump for President. The two men, who shared an ideological kinship on fighting illegal immigration and being quite skeptical about legal immigration as well, campaigned together throughout the primaries and general election. Sessions had a seemingly permanent hold on his Senate seat, but he was rewarded by Trump by being nominated for Attorney General, where he was expected to be a very polarizing figure. At the time, Alabama had an embattled GOP Governor who would eventually resign upon a criminal conviction, but before that, he appointed state Attorney General Luther Strange to fill the Senate vacancy. There were questions about just when a special election would need to be held, but little doubt at the time that Republicans would hold it in this solidly conservative southern state.

In the meantime, as Sessions went about vigorously defending Trump Administration policy at Justice, he ran afoul of the President on a very important matter. He saw the very obvious need to recuse himself from any portion of oversight of the FBI's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. After all, Sessions had been a top Trump surrogate in this campaign and had some contacts with the Russians himself. Legally, he had no other choice but to step aside on this matter, but Trump saw things differently. Simply put, he had expected Session to make it all "go away", but instead the motion was sent in place which would quickly lead to a special counsel and a very intensive investigation. While Trump himself was ultimately cleared on conspiracy and obstruction allegations, largely by technicalities, his actions as it related to Ukraine in a somewhat related way would come to light and lead to him becoming the third ever President to be impeached. Trump was acquitted in the Senate, largely by partisan lines, but by this point, there was an Alabama Democrat who voted to convict him.

This surprising situation occurred because Republicans lost the special election in Alabama in late  2017. The appointment of Strange became controversial and even though he was backed by Trump, he faced serious opposition for the seat in the Republican primary. Some even speculated that Sessions, who was out of favor as Attorney General, might try to make things easier for his party by making a quick return to the Senate, but that was not to be. Instead, Strange would finish second in the first round behind controversial social conservative Roy Moore, whom twice had been ousted as State Supreme Court Chief Justice. In the runoff, Moore beat Strange outright and by then many were concerned that the seat was now in danger.

Democrats had easily nominated Doug Jones, a left leaning former U.S. Attorney. He had first gained attention in the state in the 1990s for the successful prosecution of Klan members for historically notorious terrorist acts that had taken place over thirty years earlier in the state. He was seen as a credible candidate for his party but not as someone whom had a realistic shot of winning. That was until Roy Moore emerged as the Republican nominee.

Already very polarizing, Moore suddenly became the target of media stories about his past as a bachelor in which he had years earlier had a history of preying on teenage girls. Moore denied wrongdoing but was not able to sufficiently tamper the stories. Clearly, he had done some things in his past that he did not want the public to know about and the perception of Moore as a "pedophile" began to grow. Republicans put on a full court press to get him to exit the race, in one such scenario he would be replaced by Sessions, but Moore stubbornly refused to step down. With that in mind, some in the party, including Trump himself, refused to withdraw support for Moore. Democrats were now extra motivated and many Republican voters in the suburbs joined them in either voting for Jones or by writing in a different Republican. The end result was a two point win by Jones and a pickup for Democrats for a seat they basically had no business in winning.

While the victory of Jones was seen as a bit of a political fluke, the fact is that he earned the right to be a Senator through the regularly scheduled 2020 election. Trump continued to lash out at Sessions in very personal terms over the sense of personal betrayal he felt by his ally, in the hopes that Sessions would quit. He would not do so though, only to be fired by Trump the day after the 2018 midterms.

As a Senator, Jones has tried to take a middle ground on some matters, but has largely sided with his party. He has seemingly always known he would be an underdog to win a full term, and was under significant pressure perhaps to not vote to convict Trump in the impeachment trial in a state where such a vote would be disapproved of, but he stood with his party on that matter.

Considering the political nature of Alabama, numerous Republicans lined up to take on Jones for this year's contest. The list included Roy Moore himself. Clearly such a re-run of the special election would be a gift from heaven for the Jones campaign, but that did not come to be, as many in the party were clear on opposing him and thus Moore finished with just 7 percent in the first round primary.

Congressman Bradley Byrne had given up a safe seat to seek the Senate nomination, but he would ultimately finish in third place with 25 percent of the vote. The second place finisher in the initial primary was none other than Jeff Sessions, the erstwhile former Attorney General and longtime holder of the seat. Many in the state had encouraged Sessions to make a comeback and he led in early polls. This did not please Donald Trump, whom made it very clear that his former Attorney General remained a much reviled figure in his mind. Sessions claimed he was right to recluse himself on Russia, but otherwise embarked on a strategy to try to hug Trump as tightly as possible regardless and saying he would be a strong vote for the President's agenda.

With Trump already opposing him on Twitter, Sessions could do no better than 32 percent and a second place finish. Finishing just about him with 33 percent was political newcomer Tommy Tuberville, a former head coach of Auburn University's football team. College football is basically king in Alabama, and with so much opposition to Sessions, even fans of the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide put aside past rivalries to side with Tuberville. While the former coach joined all of his opponents in declaring extreme loyalty to Trump, Tuberville was basically someone who had never been seen as being politically ambitious. He had been living in Florida before deciding to return to Alabama to make this race. While he had much success for a time as the head coach of the Tigers, he had left that post under somewhat of an ethical cloud. He would resurface as head coach at a couple "lesser conferences" than the SEC leading teams that did not fare all that well overall.

The runoff though seemed like the result would be clear when Trump offered his full endorsement to Tuberville and continued hammering away at Sessions. The former Senator said he was the true conservative in the race and that Tuberville had ties to figures in the party with anti-Trump ties. All Tuberville, who avoided debates, really had to do was to remind the GOP voters that Sessions had somehow abandoned Trump in a time of need and that the President was really angry at him. Tuberville was expected to win but his runoff margin of 61-39 was larger than anticipated and a clear rebuke of Sessions.

In some ways, this was not welcome news for Democrats of course, as a Sessions candidacy might have lead Trump to basically boycott the race. That would have perhaps been Jones best shot, but instead he now faces Tuberville, a candidate running on conservative themes favored by the state's voters but without a political record to have to defend.

The current incumbent Jones will do very well with the state's African-American voters and perhaps will be able to see his personal favorability and biography keep this race closer than it might otherwise be. Democrats in the state, whom have struggled mightily statewide in recent years, are going hard against Tuberville, trying to portray him as an empty suit and even reminding the voters that he had lost as Auburn head coach to SEC traditional weak sister Vanderbilt. They point out how he had broken many promises as a coach as he climbed the professional ladder. Such a thing is hardly unusual though when it comes to big name coaches.

Campaign 2020 might prove to be a very tough one for Republicans nationwide, including in Senate contests, but Alabama is still Alabama. This is a state where Trump's support will still do more good than harm. Right now, the polls show a somewhat modest lead for Tuberville over Jones leading many to think that the Democrats might somehow be able to pull another rabbit out of his hat. This would likely involve a significant campaign gaffe or political "turnover" by Tuberville though. At the homestretch, many whom identify as conservatives or those whom remained loyal to Sessions might "come home" to the Republican nominee.

Right now, the race looks somewhat competitive, and I am being cautious by calling it "Leans Republican" but a GOP landslide is probably more likely in Alabama than a victory of any sort for Jones. He simply is not running against an alleged serial predator of young girls anymore, and thus anything with a ten point loss might be the best he can hope for.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far:

0 D
1 R (1 Lean)

Total with predictions thus far:

35 Democrats (35 holdovers)
31 Republicans (30 holdovers, 1 Lean)


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