Republicans in Alabama and Democrats in Texas will make key choices Tuesday about Senate races that have GOP strategists moving to thwart signs of Democratic momentum in states that have long been anchors of the conservative movement.
Alabama Republicans, hoping to reclaim a seat they fumbled away three years ago to Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, have been lukewarm about renominating Jeff Sessions, the former U.S. attorney general, for his old Senate seat and instead are leaning toward former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville.
And in Texas, Democrats appeared headed toward easily nominating M.J. Hegar, an Air Force veteran whose biography nearly helped her win a House seat in 2018, to take on Republican Sen. John Cornyn as he tries to win a fourth term. But a late charge from state Sen. Royce West has prompted outside support to pour in to try to bring Hegar, favored by Democrats in Washington, across the finish line.
Sessions’s fate will be the biggest headline from the primaries in the two Southern states, a possible final twist in a career that saw an ideological bomb thrower long on the fringes of GOP politics get drawn right into President Donald Trump’s inner circle during the 2016 presidential campaign.
He surrendered the seat he had easily held for 20 years to become Trump’s attorney general, then fell out of favor when he recused himself from the investigation into the 2016 campaign’s involvement with a Russian interference push designed to help Trump. The president fired Sessions in November 2018 and has forcefully endorsed Tuberville to win the nomination, belittling his one-time ally.
“Jeff Sessions is a disaster who has let us all down. We don’t want him back,” Trump tweeted Saturday.
A onetime Alabama favorite son hopes to win back his Senate seat. Trump stands in the way.
In both states, Republicans are moving to try to tamp down Democratic optimism about those Senate races, believing that they must lock down those two races well ahead of Election Day to narrow the field in a year in which Democrats are playing serious defense in just two states.
Whoever emerges from the Sessions-Tuberville race, a runoff election that started in early March with initial primary balloting and got delayed several months because of the coronavirus pandemic, will be functionally broke.
GOP strategists believe Jones, who had raised more than $15 million by March 30 and has been spending on largely positive ads, will immediately launch a sharp negative attack on the Republican nominee, who will be scrambling to raise money for the general election.
Instead, Tuberville or Sessions will be heavily reliant on two outside conservative groups, the Club for Growth and One Nation, which have booked about $5 million worth of advertising.
The ads, strategists say, are expected to focus heavily on Jones’s voting record, including his support for convicting and removing Trump from office during the impeachment trial this year and his October 2018 vote against the confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
They hope this will buy enough time for the GOP nominee to reload a campaign war chest and take over the line of attack later in the summer.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its allies have been reluctant to invest heavily in a state that Trump won by almost 30 percentage points in 2016, but given Alabama’s inexpensive media markets, they could shift on a dime and go into that race later in the campaign if it remains close.
Maine holds its House and Senate primaries Tuesday; in early 2019, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., charted his political course, everyone expected a tough race there. Sara Gideon, the State House speaker, is the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Sen. Susan Collins in the general election. Millions of dollars have already poured into that race, both to the candidate coffers andfrom outside groups.
But most observers expected Alabama to be safely in the GOP pickup column, while many believed that Cornyn would have a much easier ride to reelection than fellow Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who narrowly held on to his seat in 2018.
But Texas, which gave Trump a nine-point win four years ago, has been drifting more into the swing-state column, and recent polling shows a competitive race between the president and Democrat Joe Biden.
That gives Democrats more hope, and, after settling on Hegar as their preferred nominee, they have rallied a broad group to support her during the final days of the primary runoff against West.
According to an analysis by the Texas Tribune, Hegar and her allies – including the DSCC and Emily’s List – are outspending West $85 to $1 in the homestretch of the campaign.
Cornyn, signaling that he believes the underfunded West would be easier to beat than Hegar, launched a late advertisement that is designed to look as if he is attacking the state senator’s liberal positions. Instead, the ad is designed to boost West, showing the black politician with liberals who are popular with Texas primary voters, including Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.
“Now we know why Royce West is standing with left-wing politicians,” the narrator says. “He’s on their side, not ours.”
Hegar has tried to keep the focus on Cornyn, pointing toward a general election campaign that she wants to be about how Trump, as well as Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, handled the coronavirus epidemic. Her campaign Monday lashed out at Cornyn’s Sunday tweet asking which scientists need to be trusted to fight the pandemic.
“Senator Cornyn has consistently and repeatedly undermined the reality of the pandemic, and Texans are done with his failed leadership,” said Jake Lewis, Hegar’s spokesman.
Texas and Alabama have a few other races of note on Tuesday:
– Two Republicans will win the nominations for the seats of retiring Alabama Republican Reps. Bradley Byrne and Martha Roby and are all but certain to then win House seats in their heavily conservative districts.
– Trump’s former physician, Ronny Jackson, is running to win the nomination to replace Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, in one of the most conservative districts in the nation.
– Pete Sessions, a 22-year veteran of the House, lost in the Democratic wave of 2018 and, rather than running for his old seat in the suburbs of Dallas, has moved further south to run in a more conservative district, set to be decided in Tuesday’s runoff.