How big was Tommy Tuberville’s win over Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate Republican primary in Alabama? Tuberville, who coached Auburn for 10 years and beat Alabama six straight times, even carried Tuscaloosa County, 52.5%–47.5%. Statewide, it was a landslide: Tuberville took 60.7% of the vote.
The result puts Tuberville into the Nov. 3 general election in what will be one of the most closely watched Senate races; incumbent Doug Jones is considered the most vulnerable Democrat, and flipping the seat will likely be crucial to the GOP’s hopes to retain control of the Senate.
Tuberville isn’t the first football coach to dabble in politics. Tom Osborne served three terms as a U.S. Representative from Nebraska after 25 years, 255 wins and three national titles as Cornhuskers coach. In 2006 he ran for governor but lost in the general election—making Tuberville’s win even more remarkable by comparison. Osborne was a legend at the only game in town; Tuberville was run out of Auburn in 2008 after spending a decade coaching a program that half the state considers the archenemy.
But Tuberville had something better than statewide gridiron love: the endorsement of the President. Jones won the seat in 2017 after Sessions gave it up to become Donald Trump’s Attorney General. Sessions earned Trump’s ire when he recused himself from the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, leading to Sessions’s resignation in November 2018. When Sessions threw his hat in the ring to get his old seat back, Trump was quick to pounce.
That left Sessions fighting a battle on two fronts: with Tuberville and with the President.
For his part, Tuberville maintained a relatively low profile leading up to the runoff. (In Alabama’s primary, if no candidate gets 50% of the vote, the top two advance to a runoff. In the March primary, Tuberville edged Sessions 33%-32%.) The 65-year-old, who is a first-time political candidate, declined to debate Sessions and seemed content to limit his visibility to grassroots events. As such, the biggest news hit from his The People vs. The Swamp Tour was when one of his buses caught fire on I-59. “Coach Tuberville’s candidacy has obviously caught fire with voters...and our bus has, too,” his campaign manager, Paul Shashy, told AL.com.
Tuberville was happy to play up the Trump connection.
The night before the election, Trump again endorsed Tuberville, though his praise for the coach was overshadowed somewhat by the fact that he repeatedly called Alabama coach Nick Saban by the wrong name. “Really successful coach," Trump said. "Beat Alabama, like six in a row, but we won't even mention that. As he said ... because of that, maybe we got 'em Lou Saban ... And he's great, Lou Saban, what a great job he's done.” (Former coach Lou Saban, who is a distant relative of Nick, is on the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame. Trump attempted to buy the Bills in 2014. Tuberville’s last game before his resignation was a 36–0 loss to Nick Saban’s Tide.)
The gaffe had no bearing on the race, which Tuberville called “the hardest dang thing I’ve ever done.” After the results were in, he addressed a crowd in Montgomery, appealing to Sessions’ backers with a football analogy. “Being a football coach,” he said, “I know when you get into a bowl game, and you lose, one team moves on, the other one doesn’t, but in the same conference, but you pull for each other even after that.”