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Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions Loses Alabama Runoff Election

NOEL KING, HOST:

Jeff Sessions is out of the Alabama Senate race. Former football coach Tommy Tuberville beat him in a runoff race. That means Tuberville will challenge Democrat Doug Jones in the fall, and it may be the Republican Party's best chance to take a Senate seat. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been covering the race. Good morning, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Sessions used to be pretty popular in Alabama, but it looks like this will be not just a loss, but a pretty substantial one. What happened?

ELLIOTT: Right. More than double digits, reflecting what the polls had indicated was going to happen throughout much of the campaign. You know, Tommy Tuberville was really able to capitalize on President Trump's endorsement, making his allegiance to Trump his No. 1 selling point. He promised that, unlike Jeff Sessions, he won't let the president down when the going gets tough.

You know, Sessions struggled to overcome being ousted as attorney general after he recused himself from special prosecutor Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, something that Trump went to great lengths to berate Sessions for time and time again. He even made this robocall the night before the election in support of Tuberville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's going to have a call - direct line into my office. That I can tell you 'cause, you know, we had the Jeff Sessions thing. We gave it a shot. I had no idea it could be as bad as it was. But he had no clue.

KING: No love lost between Trump and Sessions. That's apparent. Sessions, though, did hold that Senate seat for 20 years before he joined the Trump administration. What's he saying this morning - or last night?

ELLIOTT: Right. He was certainly a fixture in Alabama politics. He was a former attorney general of the state, had been a U.S. attorney in Mobile. He made a somber speech from the Hampton Inn in Mobile last night. He's 73 years old now and said he ends his political career with no regrets and his integrity intact.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF SESSIONS: I was honored to serve the people of Alabama in the Senate, and I was extraordinarily proud by the accomplish that - accomplishments we had as attorney general. On recusal, I followed the law. I did the right thing, and I saved the president's bacon in the process.

ELLIOTT: Saving his bacon, meaning he maintains that he - if he had done anything to somehow squash the investigation, things would have turned out much worse. But he didn't take that tone against the president until pretty late in the campaign, and I think that hurt him. He largely ran a campaign, up until the very end, based on his alignment with Trump's agenda, making the case that he was all about tougher immigration laws and some of the same issues that Trump pushes long before Trump even got into politics.

KING: Tommy Tuberville - the winner - he does not have a long history in politics. What do we know about him?

ELLIOTT: Right. He is new to this game, but he generally gets the celebrity treatment anywhere he goes in Alabama. He is the former football coach at Auburn University. Early in his coaching career, he earned this nickname, the riverboat gambler, for risky play-calling. But he took very few risks in this runoff campaign, especially after the vote got pushed from March until yesterday because of the coronavirus pandemic. Tuberville had refused to debate. He largely avoided the media. His ads would hit these familiar themes that resonate with conservative Republican voters here in Alabama - religious freedom, border security, law and order, gun rights. And he came back to those issues in his victory speech last night from Montgomery, as he turned his attention to his next opponent, the Democratic incumbent Doug Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOMMY TUBERVILLE: In Doug Jones' Alabama, the Second Amendment is a dream. It's just a thought. It's not in the Constitution to them. By God, they're not taking our guns.

(CHEERING)

ELLIOTT: So just a little foreshadowing of what's to come in this Alabama Senate race. It's going to pull a lot of attention and probably a lot of money from both national parties.

KING: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.