All signs point to Tommy Tuberville winning the Alabama Republican Senate primary runoff next week, but it has been anything but smooth sailing for the former Auburn football coach as the clock runs down.
In the last 10 days, Mr. Tuberville has seen his judgment as coach questioned, his financial propriety impugned and his campaign bus in flames on the side of a highway.
Yet Mr. Tuberville’s opponent, Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s first attorney general, has struggled to capitalize on Mr. Tuberville’s troubles. Mr. Sessions labors under the disapproval of Mr. Trump, who has never forgiven him for recusing himself at the beginning of the Russian collusion investigation.
Mr. Trump, who remains popular in Alabama, has endorsed Mr. Tuberville, hosted him on Air Force One last month and has promised to campaign in Mobile — all unwelcome reminders to the Sessions campaign.
“Given we’re fairly close to the runoff, I think most of those who will actually vote have already made up their minds,” said John Couvillon, director of JMC Analytics, a political polling and consulting operation that works in the Deep South.
The candidates in the July 14 runoff are vying for the GOP spot on the ballot against Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who was elected in a special election in 2017 and is now rated the most vulnerable senator up for re-election in November.
A minor hiccup hit the Tuberville campaign when the campaign bus inexplicably caught fire while on a highway last Wednesday. No one was injured in the blaze and Mr. Tuberville was not on board at the time, but the campaign did send out a fundraising request asking for donations of $25 to repair the vehicle.
A more serious issue arose the following day when questions about Mr. Tuberville’s discipline while coaching the Auburn Tigers resurfaced. In 1999, for instance, Mr. Tuberville suspended for one game a wide receiver who had struck a plea deal with prosecutors, reducing a second-degree rape charge involving a 15-year-old girl to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
The punishment struck many as too lenient, and Mr. Sessions said the matter “raised serious questions about [Mr. Tuberville’s] judgment and resolve.” But Mr. Tuberville did not address the issue directly, instead issuing a statement through a campaign spokesman that he handled all discipline issues with players only after law enforcement had concluded their handling of a case.
Then, on Sunday, The New York Times linked Mr. Tuberville to an illegal financial scheme in which he became involved after he left Auburn in 2008. Mr. Tuberville formed a company, TS Capital Management, with John David Stroud, a former Lehman Brothers trader, that wound up with Mr. Stroud sentenced to 10 years in prison and Mr. Tuberville settling private lawsuits.
Mr. Tuberville has insisted he, too, was an investor that got burned in that fund, although there is ample evidence — his business cards, his BMW, his health insurance — he was a principle player in the company.
The plaintiffs Mr. Tuberville settled with are under the terms of confidentiality agreements his campaign has not agreed to lift, and Mr. Sessions again insisted it do so Monday.
“If Tommy Tuberville has nothing to hide, why does he continue to refuse to release the victims from the secrecy agreements that he made them sign so that they could share exactly what happened?” Mr. Sessions said. “Tuberville and his lawyers must release the victims immediately so we can get the full truth about this issue.”
Mr. Sessions also has strived over the past several days to highlight ordinary Alabamians who his campaign said lost their life savings after investing in Mr. Tuberville and Mr. Stroud’s company. Mr. Tuberville lost at least $2 million in the arrangement, according to The Times’ estimate.
“In 2009, Coach Tuberville lent his name to an investment company; it was a big mistake and he’s paid for it,” read a statement from campaign spokesman and Mr. Tuberville’s attorney Stan McDonald. “He never received a dime — it was a dead loss for him and his family between his initial investment, legal fees and eventual settlement.”
It was not clear Monday how the latest revelations may influence the race in which Mr. Tuberville has been the clearcut leader. Both Mr. Tuberville and Mr. Sessions hold polling leads over Mr. Jones, but Republicans in Alabama, bemused by the national media attention they seem to get only at election time, argued privately Monday that the Jones campaign relishes a divided GOP electorate.
The solid support of the White House and the comfortable polling lead Mr. Tuberville has enjoyed should insulate him from the past week’s setbacks, Mr. Couvillon said. The state GOP has declined to endorse a candidate in the runoff.
“The one analogy I see is Bain Capital, where the Obama campaign was able to tar Mitt Romney by guilt through association so that he seemed responsible for every bad thing that came out of Bain,” Mr. Couvillon said. “But if this is just an isolated point, and given the extraordinary circumstances that led to Jones’ victory in 2017 that are unlikely to be replicated this time, it should be easy for Tuberville to label this a last-minute smear.”
Still, in the homestretch, Mr. Sessions is trying to fan concerns more scandal will stick to Mr. Tuberville, creating a situation similar to 2017 when reports that former state supreme court justice Roy Moore had sexually assaulted underage girls when he was a young lawyer catapulted Mr. Jones to his narrow victory.
“If this is just coming out now, we have to wonder what other skeletons are hiding in Tommy Tuberville’s closet,” Mr. Sessions said. “The truth is that he’s an unvetted candidate and Alabama voters can’t afford to send a question mark into the race against Doug Jones and the millions of dollars of out-of-state money at his disposal.”
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