Trump-Backed Football Coach Bests Sessions in Alabama Senate Race

Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville gestures Tuesday while greeting supporters in Montgomery, Ala., after he defeated Jeff Sessions in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

(CN) — Tommy Tuberville, the former football coach for Auburn University, has another win.

After Alabama pushed off a runoff primary over concerns of the coronavirus, Republican voters took to the polls Tuesday to choose which candidate would seek the Alabama Senate seat currently held by the most vulnerable incumbent Democratic senator this election season: Doug Jones.

Tuberville earned about 61.2% of the vote with 65 of Alabama’s 67 counties reporting, according to the Alabama Secretary of State. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions trailed with about 38.8% of the vote.

About 485,000 of Alabama’s 3.6 million registered voters voted in the runoff primary election.

The race tested whether Sessions — vying for the seat he had held in the Senate for two decades — still had the support of Republican voters in crimson red Alabama. 

Speaking to supporters in a hotel ballroom in Montgomery, Tuberville stuck a conciliatory tone with Sessions and his supporters. “Now we’re on the same team,” Tuberville said minutes after he took the stage and a five-piece band strummed “America the Beautiful.”

Minutes before, Tuberville had spoken with President Donald Trump on the phone.

President Donald Trump sits with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the FBI National Academy graduation ceremony in Quantico, Va., on Dec. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Describing the next three months until election day as a tough race, Tuberville criticized Jones’ record in the Senate as one dictated by Democrat leaders outside the state. For instance, Tuberville brought up Jones’ vote against U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a vote against conservative judges.

“Doug Jones’ Alabama is not the conservative state that we love and embrace and defend,” Tuberville said.

In a statement Tuesday night, Jones stressed his ability to reach across the aisle and said during his time in the Senate he helped pass 17 bipartisan bills and worked on bolstering rural hospitals.

“That’s the record I will present to the people of Alabama at a time when our country and our state face multiple crises,” Jones said.

Days before this election, the Alabama Secretary of State’s office told poll workers they could strongly recommend — but not require — voters wear masks at polling locations. Even before the hot election day dawned over the state, it was affected by the coronavirus, as Alabama had rescheduled the election that was originally set to take place at the end of March.

Sessions was the first senator to endorse President Donald Trump, who embraced many of Sessions’ immigration policies. 

In 2016, 62% of Alabama voters cast ballots for Trump.

Sessions became Trump’s attorney general, but the relationship soured when Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election. Ultimately, Sessions resigned at the request of Trump.

The race to fill his former Senate seat in 2017 went to Democrat Senator Doug Jones after Republican challenger Roy Moore — twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court – was accused of sexual impropriety weeks before the special election.

During his race seeking to reclaim his former seat this year, Session has touted a tough stance on immigration and a list of policy proposals including a vow to hold China responsible for Covid-19.

Sessions has also gone on the attack and described Tuberville as an “unvetted candidate.”

But Tuberville has the prized endorsement: the support of Trump.  

In mid-June, Tuberville touted a visit he made on Air Force One, where he talked with Trump about the president’s plans for the economy.

In February, Tuberville was campaigning across the state with a blue bus emblazoned with slogans such as “The People vs. The Swamp Tour.”

At the end of June, the bus caught fire along a highway in northeastern Alabama. The DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office posted pictures on Facebook of flames jumping out of the back of the bus into the night sky.

During the March 3 primary, about 718,000 voters cast ballots in the Republican Senate primary race. Of those, 31.64% supported Sessions while Tuberville edged ahead with 33.39%.

The remaining third of voters were split in support across five other candidates, triggering a runoff.

In this runoff primary, almost 43,700 voters requested absentee ballots for the July 14 election. According to a spokesperson for the Secretary of State, about 26,500 absentee ballots were cast by Monday morning.

Neither the Sessions campaign nor the Tuberville campaign immediately returned requests for comment Tuesday. 

Earlier in the day, as Jessica Barker drove between polling locations, the big issue on her mind was the slow trickle of voters turning out this election. Barker, co-founder of Lift Our Vote 2020, told Courthouse News by phone that poll greeters who were speaking with voters in parking lots outside of polling locations in Birmingham and Mobile told her most voters were over 50. It was rare to see a voter under 35.

Barker blamed the low turnout to the spread of Covid-19, even though voters were wearing masks, sanitizing their hands and “social distancing is very prevalent.”

Some voters faced barriers to meeting the state’s requirements to vote absentee, Barker said, such as not having access to a printer in order to send in a copy of their ID.

“I don’t think the State of Alabama did a good job at making sure its citizens felt comfortable in voting during these election cycles,” Barker said.

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