MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — As Jeff Sessions explores a campaign to reclaim the Senate seat he held for 20 years, he's finding much has changed since he left — namely, President Donald Trump.
His potential Republican primary rivals said Tuesday that they would not clear the field for the former senator and signaled they were ready to use his tumultuous tenure as Trump's attorney general against him. Trump has called Sessions "the biggest mistake" of his presidency and some candidates for the Senate seat have suggested they would not let voters forget it.
Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville said in a statement that Sessions "had a chance to stand and defend the President and he failed."
"If the voters of Alabama want a career politician as their next U.S. Senator, then they have plenty of choices. If they want a political outsider who will stand with President Trump and fight the DC establishment when it matters the most, then I am the only choice," Tuberville said.
The Associated Press reported Monday that multiple Republican sources say Sessions is making calls exploring a possible run for his former Senate seat. The three Republicans spoke on condition of anonymity so they could speak more freely about closely held conversations.
Sessions represented Alabama in the U.S. Senate from 1997 to 2017 and left the Senate to become Trump's first attorney general. He was later ousted after enduring repeated public mocking from Trump for recusing himself from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. In a state where the president is largely beloved, the bitter breakup between Sessions and the president could be a liability.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne told the AP that he will "absolutely" stay in the race if Sessions becomes a candidate.
"The president does not want him to be the U.S. senator for Alabama. I know," Byrne said. Asked if he has talked to Trump about this, Byrne replied: "I know. And I don't think a state like Alabama that's so pro-President Trump is going to react favorably to someone who's running as the president's opposition."
Byrne said he spoke to Sessions last week for less than 10 minutes but declined to disclose the subject of the private conversation.
Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who lost the 2017 special election to Sen. Doug Jones, said he will stay in the 2020 race regardless of what Sessions decides.
Despite the criticism from Trump, Sessions has continued to praise the president.
In a speech earlier this month at a Republican Party fundraiser in Huntsville, Sessions reiterated his support for Trump even as he joked about life after being "fired" from a job. Sessions praised Trump's effort on trade, immigration and foreign policy.
"That's why I supported him and why I still do support him," Sessions told the crowd of about 500. "He is relentlessly and actually honoring the promises he made to the American people."
Sessions has $2.4 million in a campaign account, according to campaign finance records. Byrne, the best-financed Republican in the race, has about $2.5 million cash on hand.
Sessions, who was state attorney general before being elected to the Senate, also has more than two decades of support from Alabama voters.
"I suspect Sessions would become an immediate front-runner if he were to enter the race," said David Hughes, a political scientist at Auburn University in Montgomery.
"We know from past experience in the 2017 U.S. Senate special primary that Republican voters are willing to buck the president's preferences. And Sessions has done little to distance himself from Trump. I have no a priori reason to believe state Republicans have turned on Sessions," Hughes said.