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The Sessions Question

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

This piece was originally published in Inside Alabama Politics on Monday, November 4. 

After a full six months of campaigning, millions of dollars raised, and career trajectories changed for good, the biggest determining factor for who becomes Alabama’s next United States Senator will happen this week when former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decides whether or not to run for his old Senate seat. From Montgomery to Mobile to Birmingham to Washington, D.C., the speculation has been running high for the last month and hit a fever pitch last week with several published reports wondering what might happen.

So, will he run? Most likely. Inside Alabama Politics put the chances of Jeff Sessions filing paperwork to qualify as a Republican for the U.S. Senate at 90% (okay, now more like 99%). An official announcement from Sessions could come as soon as Wednesday, ahead of the Friday filing deadline. However, we are told this is now a personal and family decision and there’s still a small chance he ultimately passes on running.

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Said one person in contact with Sessions, “Not everything is in place yet. There’s still a team roster to fill. Most of that will take care of itself once he’s for sure in.”

Complicating matters a bit is the fact that President Donald Trump is scheduled to attend the Alabama-LSU game on Saturday. Should Sessions file any time this week, that news will be fresh when Trump is in Bryant-Denny Stadium, and the temptation to tweet will surely be strong. More on that later.

According to those familiar with Sessions’ deliberations, there have been two basic camps of those offering counsel. One camp is urging caution, warning Sessions about Trump’s wrath and the risk an electoral flop poses to his long-term legacy. The other camp is “all-in,” encouraging Sessions to trust his instincts and the voters who have adored him for 20 years.

Bolstering the latter camp is some seriously solid polling data that supports the prospect of a successful campaign. Sessions recently went into the field with an unusually detailed survey to see how he might fare in the already-underway Republican Primary. According to the poll, Sessions maintains incredibly high favorability with GOP voters and correspondingly low unfavorability by a ratio of two-to-one. But, those numbers alone would not be sufficient to ascertain whether he actually stood a chance. You have to ask the real question… the only question: what about Trump? What would GOP voters think of President Donald Trump opposing Sessions’ candidacy, sometimes vocally and viciously?  And that’s really the whole ballgame, right? Most every political prognosticator in Alabama has an opinion about what would happen if Trump, still very unhappy with his former attorney general, unleashed a nasty, extended, consistent barrage of criticism on Sessions from his Twitter pulpit. Some say it would take a serious toll on his candidacy, particularly if other candidates like Tommy Tuberville and Bradley Byrne piled on. Others say it’s common knowledge that Trump no longer likes Sessions and that any criticism would have a mitigated impact because it’s already “baked in” to the electoral cake. As it happens, Sessions’ poll did test that question in multiple ways, and according to sources with knowledge of the data, the numbers hold up well.

The numbers we do know

The Sessions internal numbers have not been released for publication, and perhaps never will be. However, IAP has obtained independent polling numbers on the Senate race that account for a Sessions candidacy.

In late June, Brent Buchanan’s firm Cygnal surveyed 612 likely Republican voters with a margin of error at +/-3.96%. His ballot test numbers – WITHOUT Sessions in the race – showed:

  • Tommy Tuberville 29%
  • Bradley Byrne 21%
  • Roy Moore 13%
  • John Merrill 12%

The ballot test – WITH Sessions in the race – showed:

  • Jeff Sessions 29%
  • Tommy Tuberville 21%
  • Bradley Byrne 13%
  • Roy Moore 9%
  • John Merrill 8%

The survey showed that 59% of GOP voters had a favorable view of Sessions, while 34% had an unfavorable view. Voters over the age of 70 had a 68% favorable view of Sessions.

According to Buchanan, Sessions pulls of 30% his vote from Tuberville, 26% from Byrne, and 10% each from Moore and Merrill.

Again, these numbers are from late June. However, they are basically in line with more recent horse race polls, including an October survey from Cygnal. Moreover, they represent the only published data testing Sessions entering the race and may offer a clue as to what the former Attorney General is looking at internally.


Attorney General Jeff Sessions stops by the tailgate


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