Previewing the Alabama GOP primary

The Republican primary race to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat has become a loyalty contest in more ways than one as a major rift forms between President Donald Trump and Sessions.

Trump and Sessions both enjoy high popularity in the state. Trump won 62 percent of the general election vote there and, according to Gallup, 55 percent of Alabamians approve of his performance. Sessions is also popular, securing 97 percent of the vote when he ran for re-election, unopposed, in 2014.

The Republican candidates vying for his seat had previously portrayed themselves as allies of both Sessions and Trump, but Trump’s repeated attacks on Sessions have put their loyalty to the test.

Trump recently told the New York Times he wouldn’t have chosen Sessions as attorney general if he knew Sessions would recuse himself from investigations into Russian meddling in the election.

Trump then called him "our beleaguered A.G." in a tweet. He also tweeted, "Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!"

A number of reports said Trump was considering firing Sessions, but he hasn’t taken action yet. Either way, someone is going to have to take over the Senate seat he left behind in February to join the Justice Department. Which brings us to the Alabama Senate race.

Appointed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., leads the primary race with 33 percent, according to a July 20-21 poll by political consulting firm Cygnal. Strange was nominated to the spot by former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned following a sex scandal that brought him to the edge of impeachment. Strange was the attorney general in charge of investigating the scandal until he left for Washington. Current Gov. Kay Ivey scheduled the special election.

Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore follows Strange with 26 percent in the poll and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Al., scored 16 percent. The other six candidates had under five percent support.

Strange is the clear establishment candidate, having secured the backing of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and two McConnell-allied political groups, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Leadership Fund. The RNC signed off for the Senate GOP campaign arm to spend $350,000 on the race, and Senate Leadership Fund vowed to spend as much as $10 million to elect Strange.

The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 15, but if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held Sept. 26. The general election will take place on Dec. 12.

We’ve been looking for facts to check in this election (email us if you see any), but most of the campaign rhetoric has centered on the candidates’ opinions of Trump and Sessions.

Strange has maintained a neutral stance on Trump’s repeated jabs at Sessions.

"Jeff and President Trump are trying to make America great again, and it’s a privilege to work alongside both to accomplish the Trump agenda for the American people, and we need to stop letting the media distract us from that agenda," Strange tweeted.

Moore has supported Trump’s policies without publicly responding to the Sessions drama.

Brooks, on the other hand, has taken a firm pro-Sessions stance.

The congressman announced his unyielding support for Sessions in a statement calling for all nine Republican candidates to withdraw from the race to allow Sessions to regain his seat.

In order for this to work, every candidate would have to simultaneously withdraw from the primary race, Sessions would have to run for the seat, and Trump would nominate "whomever he wants" as attorney general, according to the contract Brooks drafted.

"I support President Trump’s policies, but this public waterboarding of one of the greatest people Alabama has ever produced is inappropriate and insulting to the people of Alabama who know Jeff Sessions so well and elected him so often by overwhelming margins," Brooks said.

"My closest friends and political advisers have told me to not side with Jeff Sessions, that it will cost me politically to do so. My response is simple: I don’t care. If this costs me politically, that’s fine but I am going to the right thing for Alabama and America."

Strange doesn’t seem eager to sign the pledge.

"This is what a candidate does when he learns he's plummeted to a distant third and is desperate to get attention," Strange told the Washington Examiner. "Shame on Congressman Brooks for his lack of faith in President Trump and Attorney General Sessions’ commitment to work together to make America great again."

When Roll Call asked Alabama’s senior senator, Richard. J. Shelby, who has endorsed Strange, about Brooks’ proposal, he said "Jeff Sessions is the attorney general right now … He likes the job he’s got."

"The primary is in two weeks," Shelby continued. "Maybe the polls aren’t doing well for Brooks."