MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will face ex-college football coach Tommy Tuberville in a Republican runoff March 31 as the former Alabama senator seeks to regain the longtime seat he held.
Sessions and Tuberville won the most votes in the primary Tuesday to advance from a crowded primary field. Awaiting the runoff winner in November is Democratic incumbent Doug Jones.
The 73-year-old Sessions served in the Senate for two decades before becoming President Donald Trump’s first attorney general. Tuberville, 65, used to coach at Auburn University.
Trump forced Sessions from his Cabinet after harshly criticizing Sessions for withdrawing from the federal investigation of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. election. But during this year’s Senate campaign, Sessions still positioned himself as a strong supporter of the president’s agenda.
Tuberville also closely aligned himself with Trump, who is extremely popular among Alabama’s deeply conservative Republican Party. Also in the race were U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, Rep. Arnold Mooney, businessman Stanley Adair and community activist Ruth Page Nelson..
The winner will likely be a strong challenger to Jones, who defeated a scandal-plagued Roy Moore, a former Alabama chief justice, in December 2017 to become Alabama’s first Democratic senator in a quarter-century. Jones is the only Democrat in a statewide office in the GOP-controlled state.
Sessions gave up the Senate seat when he was appointed Trump’s first attorney general, a position he was forced to resign after his recusal from the Russia inquiry sparked blistering criticism from the president. Sessions had been the first senator to endorse Trump, but in a twist of political irony, the president’s public scolding now threatens Sessions’ political comeback for a seat he once held securely.
The race has become a nasty slugfest to make the two-person runoff with the candidates trading barbs in speeches and over the airwaves.
Sessions has maintained loyalty to Trump, noting that he was the first U.S senator to endorse Trump in 2016 and arguing he would be the most effective in advancing Trump’s agenda.
â€œIâ€™ll have a better relationship. I know what he campaigned on. I was with him at those rallies. I saw how people reacted to his strength and his vigor. I do think heâ€™ll win again,â€ Sessions told reporters outside his Mobile polling place Tuesday morning.
The GOP primary has become a competition among candidates to portray themselves as the most loyal to Trump.
Tuberville, boosted by fame from years as a college football coach, has tried to portray himself as the political outsider in the race.
“This country is in trouble. Thank God we elected Donald Trump,” Tuberville said in a weekend campaign stop in Prattville.
Trump has so far stayed silent on the race.
Associated Press writer Jay Reeves reported in Homewood, Alabama, contributed to this report.