Former attorney general Jeff Sessions’s bid to reclaim from Democrat Doug Jones the Alabama U.S. Senate seat he vacated to become President Trump’s first attorney general will surely be an important factor in the 2020 battle for control for the Senate. Sessions’s campaign might be more important, however, for what it says about the tussle over Trump’s dominance of the Republican Party.

Though Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump, and their immigration agendas were once closely aligned, Sessions has been on Trump’s bad side, to say the least, since he recused himself from any involvement in the Justice Department’s investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump’s criticisms of Sessions have escalated as the investigations into his campaign and presidency intensified. He has gone so far as to say that appointing Sessions attorney general was his biggest regret.

Many Republicans think this presidential antagonism will doom Sessions’s campaign. They look at other races where presidential visits or tweets seem to have determined the outcome and note that even politicians who were locally popular, such as former South Carolina representative Mark Sanford who lost his Republican primary in 2018, can lose to a candidate endorsed by Trump. No one expects the famously vengeful Trump to let bygones be bygones.

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But Sessions remains very popular in Alabama despite the nationally reported criticisms from Trump. The conservative Club for Growth released a poll this week showing Sessions leading the prospective Republican field with 36 percent of the vote. The poll also showed that 71 percent of GOP primary voters view him favorably. Apparently two years of Trump’s angry tweets have not hurt Sessions among the people who know him best.

This means that Sessions’s primary bid could turn out to be a watershed moment for Trump’s power within the Republican Party. Many Republican officeholders are afraid to criticize the president, frightened by his overwhelming popularity among Republican voters. They fear that Trump could turn on them and either hound them out of their seats, as he did with former Republican senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, or find a competitor to beat them in a primary. One senator up for reelection next year, Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), has already drawn a serious pro-Trump primary challenger after drafting a Post op-ed opposing Trump’s emergency declaration to get funds to build his beloved wall.

That cycle of fear could be broken, however, if Trump goes all in to beat Sessions and fails. Republican officeholders will see that their personal popularity might run deeper than Trump’s appeal and that they can break selectively with the president and live to win another election. The same cracks in the ice could emerge if Trump does not seek to upend Sessions. They would see that angry Trump tweets neither move Republican voters nor imply full-throated presidential opposition. Either result would show that Trump need not be blindly followed.

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Sessions is doing his best to avoid defeat by emphasizing that he continues to support Trump. But as his campaign proceeds, he will have to explain in greater detail how he feels about the president’s tweets and how he handled the internal administration controversy during the Russia investigation. He will need to display deft political skills to both retain his own integrity and avoid antagonizing the president or his most loyal backers. But the potential national impact should he be able to do so is enormous.

Alabama holds its primary election on March 3. If Sessions finishes first or second and the first-place winner has less than 50 percent of the vote, he will then compete in a one-on-one runoff election six weeks later.

If Sessions wins, that could encourage Republicans in difficult races, such as Sens. Martha McSally (Ariz.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.), to distance themselves from the president. It could even encourage Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to hold some floor votes in the summer designed to let endangered members show their independence from Trump. He might even reason that angry tweets from Trump would help those efforts; they would prove the senators’ independence while not harming the targets with the base. Sessions currently looks like the hapless victim of Trump’s nasty side. He might enjoy the prospect of a quiet victory turning the tables on his tormentor in chief.

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