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Politics Potential GOP rival warns Sessions against run for old Senate seat over Trump ire

04:50  30 october  2019
04:50  30 october  2019 Source:   washingtonpost.com

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Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), a top candidate in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama, said Tuesday that he would not back out if Jeff Sessions tries to reclaim his old seat and warned that the former attorney general’s antagonistic relationship with President Trump would damage him politically should he run again.

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In recent weeks, Sessions has actively weighed a comeback bid for the seat he held for two decades, speaking with allies and calling major donors and fundraisers in the state to gauge his level of support ahead of the Nov. 8 filing deadline.

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Both Byrne and Sessions draw their main base of political support from the Mobile area, triggering some speculation among insiders in the state that Byrne would bow out of the Senate race and run again for his old House seat if Sessions wages a bid.

But Byrne said in an interview Tuesday that Sessions’s entry would not make “any difference to me” and vowed to stay in the race regardless.

Then, unprompted, Byrne referenced what would almost certainly be Sessions’s biggest political liability should he run again for the Senate.

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“The president is very angry with Jeff. I think the president will be very vocal against him,” Byrne said. “For Jeff’s sake, I don’t want that. But I think that’s the reality of what he’s facing.”

Byrne said Sessions’s longevity and history of winning statewide races would not be enough to counter the deep animosity that Trump — who enjoys soaring popularity among GOP primary voters in the state — still maintains for his former attorney general. And privately, other Republican officials familiar with the dynamics in the race agreed.

“The president will take Sessions to the woodshed,” one Alabama GOP official said.

The remarks from Byrne underscore the significant, Trump-sized challenge facing Sessions if he wages a bid for his old seat. He was unceremoniously dismissed by the president last November, after months of fury from Trump about Sessions’s move to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

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That recusal led to the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a decision that has prompted Trump to still, on occasion, complain about the former attorney general.

Republicans say that even despite his deeply soured relationship with Trump, Sessions has nonetheless continued to praise the president in private. Yet other Republicans in the state also warned that Trump would be a considerable liability for the former senator.

“If I were him and I was going to run, then I would see if I could patch up my relationship with the president,” said Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.), who has not endorsed a candidate in the race and said he has not spoken to Sessions about it. “I don’t know if that’s possible. Who knows?”

Still, Sessions — who has yet to make a decision, according to a close ally of his — would instantly be a formidable candidate with a long record of handily winning statewide races in Alabama.

He has maintained nearly $2.5 million cash on hand in his Senate campaign account. Byrne has led the GOP field in fundraising, with just over $2.5 million cash on hand as of Sept. 30.

The incumbent in the race, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), is considered by far to be the most vulnerable Senate Democrat on the ballot next November and is one of just two up for reelection in states that Trump won in 2016. Trump defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by 28 percentage points in Alabama.

In addition to Byrne, the Republicans who have announced their candidacies for the bid include former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, state Rep. Arnold Mooney and Roy Moore, who was the party’s Senate candidate in 2017 amid allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls in the 1970s. Moore has acknowledged interactions with the women but denied any sexual contact.

Tuberville and Byrne have led the others in both public and internal GOP polling. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote in the March 3 primary, then the top two candidates will head toward a runoff on March 31.

seung-min.kim@washpost.com

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