Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ bid for redemption evolved into a struggle for political survival Tuesday as he was forced into a runoff for the Republican nomination for the Senate from Alabama, a seat he held for 20 years before his rocky stay in the Trump administration.
In all, Super Tuesday voters in four states — including North Carolina, Texas and California — picked dozens of candidates for Election Day’s contest for control of Congress. The races were giving party leaders an initial look at whether 2020 voters were reacting to the combative era of President Donald Trump by showing a preference for centrist or ideological candidates.
North Carolina Democrats chose establishment-backed moderate Cal Cunningham over a progressive challenger to battle incumbent GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, who was easily renominated. That set the stage for a November showdown that will help decide which party runs the Senate next year.
And in Texas, MJ Hegar — backed by national Democrats — was advancing to a runoff for her party’s nod to oppose GOP Sen. John Cornyn, who cruised to renomination. Hegar’s runoff rival was not yet clear in incomplete returns late Tuesday.
Sessions, 73, was hoping the sour relationship he endured with Trump as his first attorney general wouldn’t derail his Alabama comeback bid. He faces a March 31 faceoff against Tommy Tuberville, a political novice and former Auburn football coach.
In incomplete results, Sessions’ vote count lagged well behind the combined total for Tuberville and Rep. Bradley Byrne, his two top competitors — a danger sign for a household name like Sessions. Alabama requires a runoff if no candidate receives more than half the primary’s votes.
Sessions was one of the Senate’s most conservative members when Trump made him his first attorney general in 2017. Their relationship crumbled quickly after he enraged Trump by recusing himself from the Justice Department’s burgeoning probe of Russian efforts to help Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Sessions cast himself as a Trump loyalist despite their falling out, and Trump was virtually silent about the primary, which didn’t help Sessions. His rivals touted their own fealty to the president, with Tuberville saying in an ad, “God sent us Donald Trump.”
The GOP primary winner will be favored in November’s election in the deep-red state against Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat. Jones defeated former Alabama State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in a 2017 special election after Moore was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with teenagers decades ago when in his 30s. This time, Moore was limping to a weak fourth-place finish.
The congressional contests were under cards to the day’s Democratic presidential primaries in 14 states and one territory. Moderate former Vice President Joe Biden was waging a reinvigorated fight against avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and others for the party’s nod to confront Trump on Election Day.
Still, Tuesday’s races marked the start of months of party primaries for November’s battle for Congress.
North Carolina’s Tillis is one of his party’s most vulnerable incumbents as it defends its 53-47 Senate majority. He alienated conservatives by briefly opposing Trump’s move to defy Congress and channel federal funds to building a wall along the Mexican border, and his fate in the swing state will hinge on how Trump — who’s since endorsed him — fares there in November.
Cunningham, 46, is a former state senator who served as an Army lawyer in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose centrist stances were attractive to national party leaders.
His closest competitor was liberal state Sen. Erica Smith, who waged a long-shot effort to become the first African American woman elected to the Senate from the South. She was badly outspent, despite $3 million dispersed on her behalf by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who’d hoped to undermine Cunningham.
Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn was nominated for a fourth term and seems difficult for Democrats to defeat in November.
Hegar, the Democrat, lost a surprisingly close 2018 House race and was backed by her party’s hierarchy after former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke declined to challenge Cornyn. She was an Air Force helicopter pilot who was wounded in Afghanistan.
Her challengers included Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, a liberal political organizer who received financial backing from progressive groups and the endorsement of progressive luminaries like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
In another closely watched Texas primary, 12-term GOP Rep. Kay Granger fended off a challenge in her Fort Worth district from conservative Chris Putnam. Granger, who has helped cut budget compromises as top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, was criticized as too moderate by Putnam, who drew support from the anti-spending Club for Growth.
In another race, eight-term Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the House’s most conservative Democrats, was trying to hold his sprawling South Texas district against liberal challenger Jessica Cisneros.
Cuellar has voted to curb abortions and is supported by the National Rifle Association, but he’s also backed by Democratic leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Cuellar is a top target of liberal groups, while Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney, is backed by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.
California, whose 53-seat delegation is Congress’ largest and includes 46 Democrats, features all-party primaries Tuesday. Democratic incumbent Reps. Jim Costa of the state’s Central Valley and Jimmy Gomez of Los Angeles were among those who might each face a liberal challenger when the top two finishers in each contest meet again in November.