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The Alabama Republican Senate runoff is bad news for Jeff Sessions

The state’s former senator couldn’t win the primary outright — and got picked on by Trump for the outcome.

Former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions on November 1, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Jeff Sessions held an Alabama Senate seat for 20 years — and now he’s trying to take it back.

The problem is, he’s got a bit more competition this time around, not to mention the ongoing hostility he faces from President Donald Trump. Sessions, who left the Senate in 2017 for a year-and-a-half stint as Trump’s attorney general, was one of two candidates who performed well enough on Super Tuesday to advance to a runoff in the Republican Senate primary.

He secured 31.7 percent voter support to former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville’s 33.4 percent, with 100 percent of precincts reporting. Because neither candidate was able to hit the 50 percent threshold required by state law, the race heads to a runoff on March 31.

This outcome isn’t great for Sessions, who not only was unable to win the primary outright but also trailed Tuberville in the final results, though the margin was narrow. That’s a pretty big blow for the former attorney general, who had been quite popular when he represented Alabama in the Senate.

Trump weighed in on the results on Wednesday morning, jabbing at Sessions, who left his AG post on notoriously bad terms after opting to recuse himself from investigations into Russian interference during the 2016 election.

Sessions and Tuberville have until the end of the month to make their case to Alabama voters and go head-to-head, now that other candidates like Roy Moore and Rep. Bradley Byrne have been eliminated.

The winner will go up against Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, a top Republican target, in what’s expected to be a highly competitive race this fall.

The Senate Republican runoff, briefly explained

The runoff is poised to be intense, if the candidates’ remarks this week are any indication.

Sessions, while he’s made an aggressive effort to demonstrate his ongoing loyalty to Trump, is being hit on this very issue by Tuberville, who has similarly tried to align himself closely with the president.

“We’re going to finish what President Trump started when he looked at Jeff Sessions from across the table and said, ‘You’re fired,’” Tuberville said in a speech this week.

Sessions, meanwhile, has emphasized that Tuberville — who’s sought to paint himself as an outsider candidate — is inexperienced and murky on policy positions.

“I have fought on the great issues of our day, and I have won,” Sessions argued in a speech, citing his long-standing commitment to Trump’s agenda in areas like immigration.

Trump has a fairly high approval rating in Alabama: He’s currently at 62 percent, according to Morning Consult. At this point, it’s unclear if he’ll wade further into the race, but if he does, it could potentially hurt Sessions’s attempts to win, given the ongoing tension between the two.

Doug Jones faces intense competition in the Alabama Senate race

Whoever wins the March runoff will take on Jones — widely viewed as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat this cycle — in November.

Jones won a stunning but narrow victory in the 2017 special election, flipping the Alabama Senate seat for the first time in more than 20 years. His success was buoyed by the support of black voters, the strength of his own candidacy, and the extensive weaknesses of his opponent Roy Moore, a former Alabama chief justice who faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct toward underaged women.

Jones’s approval rating is a decent 41 percent, but he’s confronted with the challenge of a majority-Republican electorate at the polls. Jones is looking to stave off the Republican attempts to retake the seat this fall — a move that’s expected to be quite tough, especially because the candidate he’s up against won’t have the same challenges that Moore did.

Cook Political Report currently rates the seat as “Lean Republican.”

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