MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – President Donald Trump made a last-minute attempt to end the comeback hopes of his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, ahead of Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff, promising that former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville would have a direct line to the Oval Office if elected senator.
No crossover voting is allowed in Alabama’s party primaries, so this election – the first to be held in the state since the coronavirus pandemic began – could provide a clear view into the extent of Trump’s influence among Republicans. Polls will be open until 7 p.m.
A voting precinct at a church in Montgomery County had a sign posted requiring face masks to vote, and every person who entered over an hourlong period after lunch wore one, along with poll workers. People were spaced out in a short line to pick up ballots.
Trump has cast a long shadow over the Alabama Senate race, backing the political newcomer after turning decisively against his former Cabinet member. Sessions held the seat safely for 20 years before resigning to lead Trump’s Justice Department. He was forced out of the position when their relationship soured over his recusal in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump called Tuberville supporters Monday night. Trump said his appointment of Sessions was a mistake and that â€œI will tell you that Tommy Tuberville is going to do a job like you havenâ€™t seen.”
“He’s going to have a cold, direct line into my office. That I can tell you,” Trump said in the call. He also praised Tuberville’s record as a football coach beating the University of Alabama, although he appeared to mistakenly refer to Alabama coach Nick Saban as Lou Saban.
Sessions hopes his long relationship with state Republicans will carry him through. He was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump in 2016, and their alliance was solidified as Trump adopted hard-line immigration proposals that Sessions had championed for years in the Senate.
â€œStand with me. We”ll make Alabama proud. We’ll have a strong voice in Washington to advance our values and protect the interest of our state,”‘ Sessions said Tuesday morning.
“I have a record. My opponent, we don’t know about him. He didn’t even say he was a Republican before he announced for this race. … He never supported Donald Trump in any way in this past campaign.”
Sessions said in campaign appearances that he had no choice but to recuse himself, because he had participated in Trumpâ€™s 2016 campaign and could have been a subject or witness.
Tuberville has mounted a strong challenge to Sessions, armed with both Trump’s endorsement and name recognition from his years on the Auburn University sidelines. He led Sessions by about 2 percentage points in the March primary before picking up Trumpâ€™s endorsement.
In campaign appearances, it has not been unusual for people to seek autographs or selfies with the former coach in a state where college football is king.
â€œIâ€™ve met a lot of you who are really looking forward to going out and voting for a true common-sense conservative that is an outsider. I want to go to Washington D.C. to speak for you,â€ Tuberville said in a social media message.
The winner of the runoff will take on the incumbent, Democrat Doug Jones, in a race with major implications for Senate control.
The primary was in March, but the runoff was delayed until summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said 40,000 absentee ballots were requested ahead of the election, and he predicted a voter turnout of as low as 10%.
Tuberville in recent weeks appears to have adopted a strategy of trying to run out the clock.
His campaign declined to make Tuberville available for an interview or disclose any of his appearances in the week leading up to the primary. He has declined Sessionsâ€™ multiple challenges to a debate, despite initially saying that he would participate.
Trump also weighed in on Twitter over the weekend, calling Tuberville â€œa winner who will never let you downâ€ and castigating Sessions as â€œa disaster who has let us all down. We donâ€™t want him back in Washington.â€ Sessions responded quickly: â€œMy honor and integrity are far more important than these juvenile insults. … As you know, Alabama does not take orders from Washington.â€
Jack Campbell, a talk radio host who supports Tuberville, said Trumpâ€™s disavowal of Sessions has become the chief issue for him and other voters. Campbell said Tuberville also has the appeal of an outsider who hasnâ€™t served in Washington before.
Montgomery county cattle farmer Bruce Alford voted for Tuberville but said it was a tough decision.
â€œI kind of want the new blood in, a little bit of change,â€ said Alford, 40.
Jodi McDade, a 68-year-old retired state employee, said sheâ€™s a long-time supporter of Sessions and wants to see him return to the Senate.
â€œAs much a fan of Donald Trumpâ€™s as I am, he has a falling out with a lot of people that he just disagrees with. He may be endorsing Tommy Tuberville today, but then they can have a falling out,â€ McDade said.
Jonathan Lemire contributed from Washington.