Jeff Sessions’s “geographical advantage”

The first round of the Alabama Senate primary did not go well for Jeff Sessions. Few expected the former Senator to win a majority in the first round, given the crowded field. But Sessions didn’t even win a plurality. Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville outpolled Sessions, 33.4 to 31.6.

On its face, this result suggested that the runoff race between Tuberville and Sessions would be a tossup. However, I thought that, with Tuberville now a more than credible candidate, President Trump would weigh in on his side, thus tilting the race to the old ball coach.

Trump wasted no time weighing in. Of Sessions, he tweeted:

This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt. Recuses himself on FIRST DAY in office, and the Mueller Scam begins.

Not for the first time, Trump got the facts wrong. Sessions did not recuse himself on his first day in office. He took office in early February 2017. He did not recuse himself until the beginning of March, and did so only after being advised by the DOJ’s ethics office, correctly in my view, that he should do so. I discussed Sessions’s recusal in detail here and here.

But facts aren’t the point in the context of this election. Trump’s attack on Sessions is the point.

Fortunately for Sessions, he may have a geographical advantage in the runoff election. Quin Hillyer, an Alabaman and long-time student of Alabama politics, explains:

There will be two and only two contested Republican runoffs for congressional seats on March 31. There are no runoffs in the 3rd through the 7th congressional districts and few local races to drive turnout. But, in both the 1st District and the 2nd District, the runoffs promise to feature hot and heavy campaigning and massive turnout efforts by their respective candidates.

The 1st District, in southwestern Alabama, is the home territory for both Sessions and third-place Senate contestant Bradley Byrne, the outgoing congressman from the district. In the March 3 primary, Byrne finished first in each county in the district, Sessions a reasonably close second, and Tuberville a distant third.

In the 2nd District, in southeastern Alabama, Sessions carried 10 of the 13 counties, including the population centers, and came in second in the other three (two to Tuberville, one to Byrne), each of them lightly populated.


Sessions also finished well ahead of Tuberville (with more than twice Tuberville’s vote total) in the only other county Byrne carried, the one containing the city of Huntsville, in which a highly educated electorate tends to vote more regularly no matter what races are on the ballot.In sum, the heavy voter turnout in the runoff will certainly be in those parts of the state where Sessions is strongest.

Hillyer doesn’t contend that this geographical advantage makes Sessions the favorite in the runoff. The Trump factor is probably enough to make Tuberville the favorite.

However, geography gives Sessions what Hillyer calls “a fighting chance.” To capitalize on that chance, Sessions will need to “run a savvy and energetic campaign.”