Understandably, the food fight that is the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has captured most of the public’s attention, especially because lifelong socialist Bernie Sanders has a decent shot of winning the right to take on President Trump in November.
However, this overlooks an even more compelling story down this way — right next door to Mississippi, in fact, where former football coach Tommy Tuberville is in a dead heat for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama.
Tuberville faces Jeff Sessions, who held the Senate seat for years until making the fateful mistake of misjudging Trump’s expectations of him as the attorney general. The winner will go up against incumbent Doug Jones in November, a Democrat who won in a very Republican state when goofball candidate Roy Moore got undone by allegations of inappropriate behavior with teenage girls.
The Washington Post published an excellent report on Tuberville’s hyperactive campaigning this week, highlighting some of his advantages and challenges.
Depending on who you talk to, Tuberville’s work history can be either an advantage or a challenge. He was a successful football coach at Auburn — so good that his teams once beat Alabama six straight years, a record that gets lost in the Crimson Tide’s more recent history of winning national championships.
What is most interesting about Tuberville is the surprise expressed by several of his former players, black and white alike, who have heard some of the fiery things he’s said during the campaign. They can’t believe it’s coming from the guy who recruited them to Auburn by promising they would be one family.
Tuberville, who also coached at Ole Miss, Texas Tech and Cincinnati, has pledged complete devotion to the president — as has Sessions, which is interesting since Trump regularly belittled him and eventually fired him. But Tuberville, as befits someone who has tied himself to the president, likes to take credit for things he didn’t actually do, and also has taken on some of Trump’s hard-line rhetoric.
He has claimed, for example, that more people from the Middle East are coming across the Mexican border than Mexicans. He’s also said that “terrorism has taken over” in some neighborhoods that practice sharia law. He’ll say whatever it takes, apparently, to seal the deal.
The players interviewed by the Post recognize that the campaign is simply Tuberville’s latest recruiting trip. Only this time he has to sell voters, not just players and their parents. But it makes them wonder whether he was sincere when he was pitching Auburn — or just telling them what they wanted to hear.
Tuberville’s support from Auburn fans might be locked in. But how will he convince those Auburn-hating Tide fans to pick him over the more experienced Sessions?
The ole coach actually has a pretty good pitch for Alabama fans. Visiting with six lunchtime regulars at a ribs restaurant in Alexander City who are Crimson Tide fans, Tuberville joked that without Auburn’s dominance in the rivalry when he was coach, Alabama never would have chased Nick Saban as aggressively as it did.
“So you’re taking credit for them hiring Saban?” one of the diners asked.
“Well, I gave you an opportunity,” Tuberville fired back. “I ran the rest of them off.”
It takes a good salesman to walk into enemy territory and come up with a line that gives the audience a chuckle.
Alabama voters may not know exactly what Tommy Tuberville stands for, but as his former players can attest, he can be a very persuasive guy. We’ll know Tuesday whether he can still show up for the big games.