A crucial factor — perhaps even the deciding factor — in the state’s Republican primary, on March 3, is likely to be which candidate can persuade Republican voters that he is the most slavishly devoted to Trump, who won Alabama by 28 points in 2016 and enjoys a net approval rating of 23 points there, the second-highest of any state. And as any student of Trump’s administration knows, the president’s favor is often a function of proximity. So Byrne was elated when he made Trump’s guest list for the Alabama-L.S.U. game — and more so when, arriving in the box on game day, he saw that he was the only Senate candidate invited. Sessions and Moore skipped the game altogether. Tuberville was in attendance but stuck in a luxury box a few doors down.
When Trump, entering the box shortly before kickoff, appeared on the stadium’s giant screens, he was greeted with thunderous cheers from the crowd of over 100,000. But Byrne didn’t find the roar to be sufficiently deafening. He rose from his seat and frantically waved his hands to the crowd while shouting: “More! More! More!” A Sessions adviser later likened Byrne’s gesture to a seizure.
Still, Byrne initially had a difficult time getting close to Trump. The president’s attention was in high demand. Other guests inside the box, many of them wearing “Trump 2020” hats, swarmed him. Visitors like Alabama’s lieutenant governor, Will Ainsworth, dropped in. As Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, snacked on mixed nuts and sipped cans of Diet Coke, people outside the box chanted the president’s name. “It was a little bit of a chaotic scene,” Byrne says. At one point during the first half, Byrne noticed Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior senator, who has endorsed Sessions, buttonholing Trump. “It wasn’t like I was watching or anything,” Byrne says, “but it’s an open room, and you can see a lot.” (“I told the president that I thought Sessions was the strongest one in the race,” Shelby later told me.)
In the second half, Byrne finally got his chance. “The president and I were standing there, watching the game, and we started talking about the Senate race,” Byrne recalls. “He wanted to know how it was going, and I told him it was going well. He said, ‘I hear it’s going well.’ He said, ‘You know, I really don’t want Jeff to be senator.’ I said, ‘Yessir, I know that.’ He said, ‘I sure hope you do well, so keep working hard.”
Trump excused himself to circulate among the other guests. “Right before he left, a few minutes into the fourth quarter — I guess he had to leave because of security and all that — he came up to me,” Byrne recalled. “And he said, ‘Go get ’em.” Byrne paused, as if savoring the memory. “And I said, ‘Yessir, I will.”
There was a time when a Senate race in Alabama might have turned on matters of direct relevance to Alabamians. When Jeff Sessions was first elected to the Senate in 1996, a major issue in the race was the fact that his Democratic opponent, a state senator, had opposed tort reform efforts in the state’s Legislature. But as parties have become more uniform, Americans more geographically sorted by ideology and cable news more pervasive, even school-board elections have turned into referendums on national arguments. And few state-level elections have been as nationalized as Alabama’s 2017 Republican Senate primary, in which the candidates became proxies in the struggle among Republican Party factions scrambling for power in the unsettled landscape of Trump’s early presidency.