WASHINGTON – Former attorney general Jeff Sessions, plotting a return to the U.S. Senate where he served for 20 years, received a rude awakening Wednesday when President Donald Trump signaled in an early-morning tweet that bygones would not be bygones.
Reacting to news that Sessions had fallen well short of a majority in Tuesday’s Alabama Republican primary, Trump unloaded on the man he blamed for the two-year federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race – suggesting he would take a more active role ahead of a decisive March 31 GOP runoff after remaining on the sidelines for months.
“This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt,” Trump wrote, referring to the probe led by former special counsel Robert Mueller III. “Recuses himself on FIRST DAY in office, and the Mueller Scam begins!”
The other candidate who qualified for the runoff – former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who has portrayed himself as a Trumpian outsider who would be completely loyal to the president – immediately endorsed the tweet: “Mr. President, I could not agree more, and in 27 days help will be on the way!”
Trump’s signal to Alabama voters came less than 12 hours after polls closed in key congressional races that offered a grab bag of implications for each party and their quests for control of Congress.
Also on Wednesday morning, a key Democratic race was decided when Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old civil rights attorney, conceded her campaign to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, who is among the most conservative Democrats in the House. Cisneros had run on a platform that included support for a single-payer health care system, the Green New Deal climate plan, a $15 minimum wage and other liberal priorities.
The race has been closely watched on Capitol Hill as a gauge of whether Democratic voters would be willing to vote out more moderate incumbents – including several House committee chairmen who are facing challenges later this year. Cisneros attracted support from, among others, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Cisneros had hoped to replicate Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 success in ousting an entrenched incumbent.
But Cuellar – with the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and traditionally Republican allies such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the conservative funding network led by industrialist Charles Koch – eked out a four-point win in his border district.
Cisneros, with help from multiple unions and the powerful Democratic group Emily’s List, won by a large margin in the suburbs of San Antonio but could not overcome Cuellar’s strength in the Rio Grande Valley, including his hometown of Laredo. But in remarks conceding the race Wednesday, she said the close result showed her campaign had “exceeded all expectations” and suggested she might run again in two years – when lower midterm turnout could work to her advantage.
“We’ve built an incredibly strong organizing operation,” she told reporters in Laredo. “This fight was an opportunity to prove that a brown girl from the border with her whole community behind her could take on the machine and bring hope to South Texas, and we accomplished that, and we are going to keep fighting.”
To other Democrats, however, Cuellar’s win showed there is a limit in many districts for hard-left policies – and that internecine battles are a waste of resources better spent on the general election. Another such contest looms on March 17, when antiabortion Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., faces a second consecutive challenge from activist Marie Newman.
“Monumental waste of resources that could have been used to keep more blue seats – and gain some, if we could,” said Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, who represents a neighboring district to Cuellar’s.
Another House incumbent, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, won a considerably more comfortable victory in her primary battle against a conservative insurgent, Chris Putnam, who attacked her role as a top appropriator in negotiating and passing government spending bills that have compounded the national debt.
But the message never took hold, especially after Trump endorsed Granger. On Wednesday, following her nearly 16-point win, Granger was on the House floor advocating for a bipartisan $8.6 billion spending bill targeting the coronavirus outbreak.
The effect of Trump’s endorsement was felt across the congressional map Tuesday, though it was not entirely a magic wand. Three Trump-endorsed Republicans – Wesley Hunt in Texas’s 7th district, August Pfluger in Texas’s 11th district and Beth Van Duyne in Texas’s 24th district – easily won nomination in crowded fields, and Jay Obernolte advanced to November in California’s 8th district.
But Ronny Jackson, the former White House attending physician who was briefly Trump’s nominee as secretary of Veterans Affairs, finished in a distant second place in Texas’s 13th district and now faces a runoff.
Trump made no endorsement in another notable race that reflected the Trumpian tilt of the GOP: Pierce Bush, a scion of the famous GOP family that has clashed with Trump, finished a distant third in a House bid in the Houston suburbs.
But Trump is likely to cast a large shadow in the coming month in Alabama, where Sessions promised Wednesday to campaign “with great confidence,” casting Tuberville as an untested outsider who moved back into the state just to enter politics.
“Let me say this – no one will prevail in this Senate race without being vetted. This is especially true of a tourist from Florida,” Sessions tweeted Tuesday. “The preliminaries are over. Now, we must know where our opponent stands on the key issues, like immigration and trade. One thing is clear. There is no doubt where I stand on these issues. You have trusted me before, and you can absolutely trust me again.”
Tuberville, who held a two-point lead in unofficial returns, cast Sessions as a “swamp insider” in a fundraising pitch sent Wednesday – suggesting a nasty campaign ahead.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who has remained neutral in the race, said Tuberville’s plurality “showed the power of the president” in holding down support for a politician who was easily reelected three times after first winning election in 1996.
“He’s a good man, but you have to win it on the battlefield,” Shelby said Wednesday of Sessions. “He’s got a shot at it. But it’s a runoff, it’ll be a smaller turnout. . . . He’s got a deep challenge.”
In other notable results Wednesday, three former members of the House kept their hopes of returning to Congress alive: David Valadao is set for a rematch with Rep. TJ Cox, D-Calif. In Texas, Pete Sessions lost a Dallas-area seat in 2018, moved to a more conservative Waco-based district last year and now faces a runoff for the nomination, while Darrell Issa, who retired ahead of the 2018 election, appeared poised to advance to the November general election in a California primary that might not be decided for days due to the counting of mailed ballots.