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Why Sessions’ Campaigning in Alabama Couldn’t Overcome Trump

MOBILE, Ala. — Jeff Sessions spent his final days on the campaign trail reiterating his support for President Trump’s agenda, reminding voters of his efforts to curb illegal immigration while attorney general and emphasizing how, as a senator, he had endorsed Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign at a time when few others in Washington would.

But in the end, it wasn’t enough. And in truth, after Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Sessions’s opponent, it probably never was.

On Tuesday, Mr. Sessions fell far short in the Alabama Senate Republican runoff election to Tommy Tuberville, a former Auburn University football coach whose platform was largely a blanket promise to support the president at all times. Mr. Tuberville celebrated the results that evening at the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery.

“People in Alabama voted against Jeff Sessions because Donald Trump told them to,” said Angi Stalnaker, a Republican strategist in Alabama. “If it had been Donald Trump saying, ‘Go write in Mickey Mouse,’ 50 percent of them would have gone to write in Mickey Mouse.”

“They wanted to please the president,” Ms. Stalnaker said. “This was never about Tommy Tuberville.”

Mr. Tuberville now advances to the November general election, where he will face Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat.

Mr. Sessions fought back tears as he addressed reporters on Tuesday evening at the Hampton Inn in Mobile. He was joined on the makeshift stage by his wife, children, and grandchildren, and he thanked him for their support during the campaign.

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Updated 2020-07-15T04:38:35.692Z

“I feel like I let them down,” he said.

Congratulating Mr. Tuberville, Mr. Sessions added that he had “no regrets” about his recusal. He had “followed the law,” he went on, and “saved the president’s bacon in the process.”

Nearly two years after Mr. Trump pushed Mr. Sessions out of his administration, the former attorney general still would not criticize the president, even in defeat. If Mr. Trump “gets on message, and stays on it,” he said, “I think he’ll be in a position to come back and win this election” in November.

ImageMr. Sessions was the first senator to endorse President Trump in 2016.
Credit…September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times

Mr. Sessions was once among Alabama’s most popular politicians, a deeply conservative Republican in a deeply conservative state. But in a testament to the president’s immense pull among the state’s Republicans, much of that good will evaporated the moment that Mr. Sessions, as attorney general, recused himself from the investigation into Russia’s influence in the 2016 election, and ignited in Mr. Trump a rage that has never seemed to dim.

When Mr. Sessions entered the primary in November — in large part, it seemed, as a way to reset his political career on his terms — he was under no illusions about the extent to which Mr. Trump’s bitterness toward him would define the race. Neither were those close to him.

Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, a Republican who served alongside Mr. Sessions for two decades, offered the president a head’s up of sorts just before Mr. Sessions jumped into the race. Mr. Shelby also had a request: Would the president try to table his issues with his former attorney general, and let Alabama decide whether he deserved another chance?

In a recent interview, Mr. Shelby recalled informing Mr. Sessions of the president’s response to that idea. “The president,” he said, “ain’t exactly on board.”

Mr. Sessions always seemed to believe that the shared political ideas that brought them together in the first place — Mr. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Mr. Trump, in February 2016 — would eventually heal the rift caused by the recusal. Yet even as he successfully rolled back key Obama-era measures related to law enforcement, civil rights and immigration, and instituted Mr. Trump’s policies in their place, the president’s antipathy only seemed to grow.

A similar dynamic played out on the campaign trail in recent months. Mr. Sessions tried to fashion himself as the most “Trumpian” candidate of the bunch, highlighting his continued support for trade protectionism and immigration restrictionism, and lauding Mr. Trump as the one Republican in Washington willing to champion a more populist iteration of conservatism.

Mr. Trump was not flattered.

In April, after Mr. Sessions mentioned the president 22 times in a campaign mailer, Mr. Trump’s campaign sent a letter to the candidate, calling his self-promotion as Mr. Trump’s biggest supporter “delusional.”

“We only assume your campaign is doing this to confuse President Trump’s loyal supporters in Alabama into believing the president supports your candidacy in the upcoming primary runoff election,” the letter said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Yet Mr. Sessions’s invocation of the president hardly stalled, and in speeches across the state, he often reminded voters that he was, in some ways, “Trump before Trump,” someone who enjoyed needling his own party’s establishment and wasn’t afraid to speak out.

Credit…September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times

To Mr. Sessions, it was the most meaningful contrast between him and his opponent. Especially during the runoff, Mr. Tuberville largely avoided public appearances and ducked most media requests. But whenever the stray reporter managed to press him on policy, his instincts, whether on immigration, trade, or China, often appeared decidedly un-Trump-like. Still, he managed to maintain Mr. Trump’s enthusiastic support throughout the runoff, and focused his strategy on television ads promoting his adulation of the president and contempt for his opponent.

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Sessions insisted that the people of Alabama cared less about which candidate the president endorsed and more about who was likeliest to advance his agenda.

Tuesday’s results appeared to puncture that belief, confirming that when it comes to Mr. Trump, ideological alignment is far less important to Alabama’s Republicans than the imprimatur of the man himself.

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Sessions did not answer shouted questions about what he planned to do next, but said of politics:

“This chapter of my life is closed.”

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