Welcome to the most negative Senate campaign of 2020 so far: the runoff in Alabama between Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville for the Republican nomination. Since June 1, the primary has had the lowest share of positive ads of any Senate primary in the country, at only 18.5 percent, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.
When excluding outside groups and focusing just on the campaigns, the ad war appears even more noxious. Since late February, both candidates have aired only attack ads against their opponent; in the nearly $2 million spent by both Mr. Sessions and Mr. Tuberville since March 1, not a single biographical or positive spot has appeared on air from either campaign.
The primary in Alabama is attracting national attention as the top pickup opportunity for Republicans in the Senate, with the Democratic senator, Doug Jones, facing an uphill battle in a state where President Trump often enjoys his highest approval ratings. Indeed, fealty to Mr. Trump and his core causes are often front and center, with neither candidate mentioning the coronavirus much in their ads.
But the race has also become a personal one for the president. Mr. Sessions is his former attorney general, and Mr. Trump has always held Mr. Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation as an unforgivable betrayal. The president endorsed Mr. Tuberville in a tweet on March 10, opening the floodgates for outside groups that often follow the president’s cues to start spending in the race.
One such group is the Club for Growth, the conservative anti-tax organization, which endorsed Mr. Tuberville in the days following the president’s announcement. Since mid-March, it has spent nearly $1 million on ads in the state, often highlighting Mr. Trump’s endorsement.
In a race where both candidates are trying to appeal to the brand of politics popularized by the president, they are also adapting his often pugilistic tactics and scorched-earth attacks.
Mr. Tuberville, a former football coach at Auburn University, has focused most of his advertising messaging on the themes of strength and weakness. He shot multiple ads in a weight room, and others in a football locker room, as he personally derided Mr. Sessions as a weak-willed politician who abandoned Mr. Trump.
“He wasn’t man enough to stand with President Trump when things got tough,” Mr. Tuberville says in one ad, right after giving a brief biceps flex, adding, “You’re either strong, or you’re not.” His campaign has spent nearly $90,000 on the ad, which proclaims that it’s “time for these weak politicians to go.”
Picking up on the football cues, the Club for Growth’s closing ad in the runoff proclaims Mr. Tuberville “tough as nails” in an ad heavy on graphics that hew closely to the style of a Sunday N.F.L. pregame show. The ad closes with two red helmets colliding at the crown, with a narrator saying, “It’s game time Alabama, send Trump a senator.”
Mr. Sessions, who before joining the Trump administration had served as Alabama’s senator for over 20 years, has been painting Mr. Tuberville as an outsider who had been tapped by political operatives in Washington to move back to Alabama and run for office.
One ad resurfaces a video of Mr. Tuberville from 2017, in which he boasts about moving to Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., after retiring from coaching football, “with the white sand and the blue water, what a great place to live.”
Other spots from the Sessions campaign show the first two seconds from one of Mr. Tuberville’s weight-room ads before interrupting the shot with color bars, co-opting the style of an emergency broadcast message as a narrator says, “We interrupt this Washington-funded Tuberville ad.”
The ad highlights Mr. Tuberville’s brief career as a manager of a hedge fund that was implicated in financial fraud. His business partner was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Mr. Tuberville settled privately with investors after a lawsuit.
The ad war between Mr. Tuberville and Mr. Sessions reflects the upside-down dynamics within the Republican Party as Mr. Trump has struggled politically amid the coronavirus pandemic and the protests for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Both candidates reiterate policies that are core to Mr. Trump, including hard-line restrictions on immigration, opposing the police reform movement and a recent defense of “America’s history,” an oblique reference to protecting the Confederate monuments around the country.
But as the president struggles with the coronavirus and lagging poll numbers, both candidates are also trying to paint themselves as the outsider, and their opponent as the “Washington insider,” as they seek to tap into the deep anti-Washington sentiment that still mobilizes the Republican base, even as Mr. Trump sits in the White House.