By John Sharp | email@example.com
Jackie Gay hasn’t laid eyes on Jeff Sessions since he announced that he was running for the Senate in November. She’s met Tommy Tuberville just once, during a function in Brewton.
The chairwoman of the Escambia County Republican Party in southwestern Alabama – where 61% of voters went for Bradley Byrne on Tuesday – hopes the voters in her rural county get a chance to hear from the remaining two GOP Senate candidates in a more formal setting about issues that concern voters.
That is, in a debate.
“I think it would be great,” said Gay. “So many times people don’t want to get engaged in politics. So many times they go to the polls not educated about the candidates.”
A push for a debate is under way three weeks before the March 31 runoff and following a primary that didn’t include any significant interaction among the top GOP contenders: Sessions, Tuberville and Byrne.
Sessions and Tuberville declined an invitation by AL.com to participate in a candidates’ debate before the March 3 primary and both have been invited by the news organization to debate prior to the runoff.
Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party, said a debate is “something we would be very interested in supporting,” though she was unaware Wednesday of any conversations involving Tuberville or Sessions or their representatives about arranging such an event.
“The one thing for sure about the party sponsoring a debate is the absolute fairness and respect we would have for Senator Sessions and Coach Tuberville,” said Lathan, in an email to AL.com. “Highlighting their views on policy for Alabama is what voters want to hear and how they would vote for the majority of Alabamians—unlike Doug Jones.”
‘I don’t know if they help much’
Frustrations have emerged from Sessions’ camp about a lack of vetting of Tuberville, a first-time candidate who’s the former Auburn University head football coach. Sessions, during a rally Tuesday in Mobile, insisted that voters deserve to know where Tuberville stands on a range of key issues, such as trade policy.
But Sessions stopped short of calling for a debate between the two. Earlier on Tuesday, while speaking to reporters, Sessions downplayed the importance of a structured debate.
“I’ve done debates before,” Sessions said. “I don’t know if they help much. The people who want to sponsor them like to have you come to their place and debate their agenda. We’ll decide that as we go forward.”
Some political observers believe a debate might be Sessions’ best political antidote to any future social media criticism from President Donald Trump. The president, on Wednesday, again ripped into his former attorney general for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election. Trump, via Twitter, said Sessions didn’t have the “wisdom or courage” to “stare down” and “end the phony Russia Witch hunt”.
He now faces a runoff against former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville https://www.politico.com/2020-election/results/alabama/ …
“Sessions is wrong here to think debates can’t help much,” said Quin Hillyer, a Mobile-based Senior Commentary Writer at the Washington Examiner. “Tuberville’s single-biggest weakness is his almost complete lack of substance and lack of real understanding of Alabama.”
He added, “Even before the debate itself, Sessions could make those questions about Tuberville the issue of the runoff by noisily pushing for a debate, saying it for just that reason. Sessions needs something bold to counteract Trump’s barbs. This would do it.”
Robert Blanton III, chairman of the Department of Political Science & Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that a debate would let Sessions demonstrate his toughness and knowledge.
“A substantial portion of core Republican voters likely view him as weak for his recusal from the Russia investigation, so anything that Sessions can do to show his backbone would help his candidacy,” Blanton said.
Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University and a longtime observer of state politics, said he believes the Sessions camp made a “huge tactical error” by not debating ahead of the primary.
“I know the kind of thinking that occurred (among Sessions advisers) because he was going to have to deal with the Trump issue,” said Brown. “It was better to deal with that in a high profile setting six weeks ago than having to (address) it now.”
‘Showing a glass jaw’
But would Tuberville be interested in a debate? His campaign manager wouldn’t commit.
“We evaluate each invitation for campaign appearances on an individual basis as they come in,” said Paul Shashy.
Tuberville’s views on issues like illegal immigration and veterans’ health care would likely come under Sessions’ scrutiny. Both Sessions and Byrne attacked Tuberville for a statement he made in August that hinted he might be open toward amnesty for undocumented immigrants, “There are people coming across the border that need jobs. And we want them to come over here. We just need to know who is here, put the wall up – and let them come in and become citizens like we all became citizens.”
Tuberville has since vehemently denied he would support amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
Tuberville also clarified, last month, past statements in which he claims he was “pissed off” at Trump because veterans “can’t get health care.” He told Republicans, during gatherings in Fairhope and Huntsville, that the blame should be directed at an unknown Trump aide, and that veterans were his No. 1 priority.
Said Brown: “Tuberville, up to this point, I don’t think he’s really has had a hard punch to deal with. We really don’t know how he’ll respond to a truly hard punch.”
Hillyer said the Republican Party should host the debate to make sure all the candidates – but, especially, Tuberville – are “fully vetted.”
Said Hillyer, “Of the top three, (Tuberville) was always was the one with any chance of losing to Doug Jones if he is the nominee. The way he would lose to Jones is by showing a glass jaw. The party, itself, should host a debate and invite all networks to cover it. That’s the only way to find out if Tuberville can take direct punches.”
Brown said that “tougher punches” are about to come in the form of questions about personal integrity.
To that end, Sessions is calling Tuberville a “tourist” and is raising doubts about the former coach’s residency. Tuberville, who was registered to vote in Florida in 2018, moved to Alabama that same year to run for the Senate.
“It would only magnify the personalities, which doesn’t benefit Sessions,” said Buchanan. “Voters are selecting their next U.S. senator based on the issues in the GOP primary, because it’s likely Tuberville and Sessions are 96% in agreement on the issues.”
‘Cynical and appalling’
Scott Dawson, a Birmingham-based youth minister who ran in the Republican primary for governor in 2018, said a debate would benefit both candidates: For Tuberville, he could “give his official case on where he stands on amnesty and his place of residency.” And for Sessions, he could “share how much he respects the president and his agenda.”
But Dawson said he doesn’t expect a debate to occur.
“I see the landscape changing quickly to campaigning becoming more commercials and sound bites than substance and thought,” said Dawson. “Look at what happened to (former New York City Mayor Michael) Bloomberg recently. He was skyrocketing (in some polling) until he took the stage.”
Dawson and his fellow GOP gubernatorial candidates in 2018 – Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and former state Sen. Bill Hightower – grew increasingly frustrated during that year’s Republican primary when Gov. Kay Ivey refused to participate in repeated debate opportunities.
Ivey’s debate no-shows had little effect on the electorate. She handily won the primary before rolling to a general election victory.
Only three of the Republicans running for Senate in 2020 were at an event originally billed as a “forum” Tuesday. Others were not in attendance for a variety of reasons, but it the event raised questions on whether they will debate.
“If this trend continues, the only one who benefits are the special interests,” said Dawson, who endorsed Byrne during the primary. “They will continue to prop up candidates that can be molded into a 30-second commercial and be otherwise clueless on issues.”
Blanton, at UAB, thinks the voters should be appalled by the lack of debating.
“I believe that our democracy is better served by candidates by having to present their ideas and be challenged on them,” he said. “It is cynical and appalling that the candidates for the most important offices in our state have been able to successfully avoid debating, and that voters have not called them on it.”