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Jeff Sessions jumps into race to reclaim Alabama Senate seat

Laura Litvan, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Jeff Sessions said he'll run for the Alabama Senate seat that he vacated in 2017 to became President Donald Trump's first U.S. attorney general, a return to politics that could be challenging given his tumultuous relationship with the president.

Sessions, 72, a former top Republican on the Senate Judiciary and Budget panels, easily held onto his seat for two decades, and his entry shakes up the race to defeat Democratic incumbent Doug Jones.

Sessions, who on Thursday night announced his candidacy in a video on his campaign's website, said he remains a strong Trump supporter despite "our ups and downs."

"When I left President Trump's Cabinet," Sessions said on the video, "did I write a tell-all book? No. Did I go on CNN and attack the president? No. Have I said a cross word about President Trump? No.

"And I'll tell you why: First, that would be dishonorable. I was there to serve his agenda, not mine. Second, the president is doing a great job for America and Alabama, and he has my strong support."

Jones, a former federal prosecutor, won a surprise December 2017 special election over Republican Roy Moore, a former Alabama chief justice who became mired in allegations of sexual assault and misconduct that he denied.

Jones is the Senate Democrat most seen at risk of losing in 2020. Republicans already in the contest include U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, Secretary of State John Merrill, state Rep. Arnold Mooney, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, former televangelist Stanley Adair -- and Moore.

Still, it's not clear that Sessions would win the GOP nomination, given his strained relationship with Trump, according to Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. He resigned last November after months of complaints and insults from the president over his recusal from the inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

"I'm disappointed in the attorney general for many reasons," Trump told reporters about two months before Sessions stepped down.

After Special Counsel Robert Mueller began his investigation, Trump publicly called on Sessions to halt it, an extraordinary break from traditional boundaries between presidents and law enforcement. He also said that he never would have nominated Sessions as attorney general if he knew he would recuse himself.

"Sessions certainly has name ID and a campaign war chest, but it's not clear that he can clear a primary field," Duffy said. "He can make a run-off, but can he win one? That depends on what stance Trump takes. It doesn't appear that Trump and Sessions have mended their fences. As for the general election, Sessions would certainly be the favorite given that it is a presidential year."

The state's other senator, Republican Richard Shelby, said he'll endorse Sessions and that his former colleague has his own pull with voters in the state that would help support him even if Trump lashes out.

"He has run before, he is very popular," Shelby said.


Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign, creating an alliance built on shared support for tougher policies on illegal immigration and a wariness of some trade deals that they said hurt the working class. He went on to advise Trump on national security and foreign policy during the election, and his longtime aide, Stephen Miller, became a senior policy adviser to the campaign and later in the White House.

Sessions was confirmed as attorney general on a 52-47 vote, after testifying that he wasn't aware of contacts between members of the Trump presidential campaign and Russian officials. But news reports later showed he had been in contact with Russians, and he recused himself from the broader investigations into Russian 2016 election meddling.

As attorney general, Sessions adopted a hard line on immigration policy, including implementing a "zero tolerance" policy at the southern U.S. border that led to family separations. He also took the position that cities that don't comply with federal immigration laws should lose federal funding. Trump signed an executive order revoking funding for such cities but it was successfully challenged in federal court

Sessions also supported allowing the Justice Department to prosecute providers of medical marijuana.

In the Senate, as the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he helped lead the fight against Obama's Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who were both eventually confirmed. He was term-limited out of the job and became the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. He was also a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He took the toughest immigration stance of any GOP senator. In 2010 he spearheaded efforts to defeat a House-passed bill that would have provided a path to legal status for hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children. The status of those immigrants has remained in limbo ever since.

A native of Selma, Ala., Sessions was a private practicing attorney before becoming the U.S. attorney for Alabama in 1981 at the age of 34. In 1986, his bid to become a federal district court judge was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee after Democrats accused Sessions of having made racially insensitive remarks.

Sessions served about six more years as Alabama's top prosecutor, then was elected state attorney general in 1994 before making his first successful bid for the Senate. When he replaced retiring Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin, his victory gave Alabama two Republican Senate seats for the first time since Reconstruction.

(James Rowley contributed to this report.)

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