The Republican candidates vying for Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat in Alabama have portrayed themselves as staunch allies of both the attorney general and President Trump.
But just three weeks before the primary, the president’s repeated attacks on Sessions are complicating the race – in a conservative state where both Trump and Sessions remain enormously popular, and candidates can’t afford to alienate either man’s supporters.
“The wise move in Alabama is to stand with the one from your state, the senator that was so very, very popular, who walked away from a job that would have been his for life if he wanted it,” advised Sean Sullivan, a conservative radio host in Mobile.
Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump and became one of his most loyal and high-profile surrogates during the presidential campaign. But their relationship has frayed, with Trump expressing his irritation in recent days over Sessions’ recusal from the Russia meddling investigation.
This has put those vying to replace him in a tough spot.
Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, who was temporarily appointed to the seat in April after Sessions joined the Trump administration, is not taking sides but is praising both Sessions and Trump. In a statement Tuesday, Strange took aim at the press.
“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,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, who has been endorsed by conservative media hosts Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Sean Hannity, made an unorthodox offer in a Wednesday press release in demonstrating his support for Sessions: that all the Republican candidates agree to withdraw from the race together to “clear the way” for the state party to nominate Sessions to run again for his old seat.
“I recognize that President Trump is popular in Alabama,” 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.”
Roy Moore, who was elected and forced out as Alabama’s Supreme Court chief justice twice but enjoys support from religious conservatives, told Fox News at a barbeque restaurant in Gardendale on Monday: “I don’t think Jeff Sessions should resign at this time. But you know that’s my opinion."
“I have the greatest respect for Jeff Sessions,” Moore added. “He’s an honorable man.”
Sullivan, the radio host, noted there's a middle ground for candidates. “To back Attorney General Sessions, you don’t have to necessarily go very full-throated against President Trump, but you should be full-throated in your support of Jeff Sessions,” he said -- advice most contenders seem to be taking.
Another candidate, state Sen. Trip Pittman, on Wednesday defended Sessions. During a radio interview on Mobile’s FM Talk 106.5, the Republican said Sessions was right to recuse himself, saying he supports the attorney general “100 percent.”
“Let’s be frank, Donald Trump would not be president, I don’t believe, without Jeff Sessions… And when Jeff Sessions stood up, he gave Donald Trump the conservative credentials he needed to widen his base to a point where he could win the presidency,” Pittman said.
He added, “I think the president needs to focus on his policies, maybe tweet a little less.”
Alabama’s Republican primary is set for Aug. 15. A run-off will be held Sept. 26 if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, which seems likely in the crowded field though polling has been scarce.
The contest has largely been defined over candidates emphasizing their support of the president. Trump has not made an endorsement in the race.
Discussing Trump’s election to the White House, Strange, who has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said this month: "I consider it a biblical miracle that he's there."
Brooks has vowed to fight for funding for Trump’s border wall. “And if I have to filibuster on the Senate floor, I’ll even read the King James Bible until the wall is funded,” Brooks said in a recent ad.
Moore told the Associated Press in May: “God puts people in positions in positions he wants…I believe he sent Donald Trump in there to do what Donald Trump can do.”
During the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Brooks supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, something his opponents have used against him. A super PAC with ties to McConnell, the Senate Leadership Fund, has been running television ads of Brooks’ past critical comments about Trump.
Earlier this week, Brooks, who was on the baseball field in Alexandria, Va., last month when a gunman opened fire on Republicans, also made news by airing an ad that includes audio of the gunshots that left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and several others wounded.
Fox News’ Jonathan Serrie and Emily Wakeman contributed to this report.