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Stacy Column: Jeff Sessions and the Audience of One

By Todd Stacy, Alabama Daily News

As a has-been politico and current hack pundit, you could say I’m a connoisseur of campaign stagecraft. I’m always interested in the different ways candidates and their consultants try to reach people, particularly via earned media, and it all starts with the announcement.

The campaign launch, in which a candidate officially announces his or her bid for office, is usually painstakingly mulled over for weeks by the campaign team. For candidates, putting your name on a ballot is among the most personally vulnerable situations to put oneself in, and nobody wants to embarrass themselves. For campaign workers, getting it just right means earning a good reputation in the business and, potentially, that all-important win bonus. I’ll admit, sometimes the magnitude of events like campaign announcements is a little overblown by those involved who are too close to it.  Still, the when, where, what and how of a campaign launch can go a long way toward defining a candidate and setting the tone for the race. 

So it was with great interest that I watched Jeff Sessions’ recent entrance into the U.S. Senate race. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the former U.S. Attorney General upset the political applecart last week by qualifying at the last minute to run for his old seat in the U.S. Senate. Instead of a big event with balloons, bunting and dancing bears, Sessions chose to go on live television to announce his candidacy. Specifically, he went on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News Channel. Now, few candidates have the opportunity to go on national cable news to announce their run for office, so it goes without saying that Sessions had options that others don’t. Still, it was an interesting choice. The advantages are that Carlson’s show is highly rated and wildly popular among conservatives, and on a good night more people in Alabama are watching Fox News than most local news stations combined. Also, Sessions knows Carlson pretty well and the two have been like-minded on policies such as immigration and trade for some time. However, there were also major risks. Announcing from a studio in Washington and not home in Alabama could potentially play into his opponents’ criticisms that Sessions has been in D.C. too long and that he’s a career politician out of touch with the people here. 

To really understand his choice, though, you have to go deeper. Sessions wasn’t trying to reach Alabama voters, at least not as a primary audience. There will be plenty of time to shake hands and kiss babies back home, as well as discuss the various issues on the campaign trail. For this announcement, Sessions had an Audience of One: the President of the United States. Remember, the big question leading up to his Sessions’ entrance into the race was the extent to which President Trump would lash out at him on Twitter and in the media, especially given his previous criticisms. I myself opined in this space that Sessions risked tarnishing his legacy by opening himself up to more belittling attacks from Trump. 

Knowing the president would be paying attention, Sessions carefully crafted a message to his Audience of One:  “Did I go and write a tell-all book? No,” Sessions says in his video, which Carlson conveniently played. “Did I go on CNN and attack the president? Nope. Have I said a cross word about our president? Not one time.” He goes on to say how much he’d support the Trump agenda if sent back to the Senate. 

Sessions’ words are purposeful, smart and directed at the one person who needed to hear them. How many other administration officials have left Trump’s orbit just to turn on him for profit, personal redemption or political gain? I can think of several, and I bet Trump is keeping a list of every one. Sessions wanted to remind Trump that he’s been a loyal soldier, even as the president has beat him up in the media. What was the effect? Well, Trump appears to be staying out of the race, at least for now. Asked about Sessions’ candidacy a day after the announcement, Trump said he would not campaign against his former attorney general and even noted that Sessions had said nice things about him on television. Voila! 

To be sure, Sessions isn’t out of the woods yet. Not by a long shot. While he is leading the only polls we know about at the moment, a runoff is still likely and there are some other candidates that are going to give him a run for his money. Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville has near-universal name recognition and an apparent command on the “outsider” lane that appeals to many voters. Congressman Bradley Byrne has the strongest organization of any campaign, with a network of staff and volunteers that will really matter down the homestretch. To put it in sports parlance, there’s a lot of football left to play. 

For his part, Sessions is still going to have to do all the things normal candidates do. That is to say, he can’t really run as the shoo-in incumbent running for reelection that he would have been had none of this AG business taken place. He’ll have to sell his candidacy to voters, many of whom are surely skeptical given Trump’s displeasure. He’ll have to mix it up with other candidates, whereas he hasn’t drawn serious primary opposition since his first run for Senate in 1996. Over the next 111 days between this writing and March 3, that’ll be fun to watch. 

Still, the one thing Sessions needed to do with his announcement was to keep Trump from attacking him, and that’s exactly what he achieved. For now. 


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