Republican President-elect Donald Trump announced Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as his pick for attorney general, and that’s raising questions about who his replacement will be.
Sessions’ seat is considered by most pundits to be a “safe Republican” seat, meaning it’s a reliable refuge the Republican Party can go to in order to build a Senate majority. It’s the first safe Republican seat to open in Alabama in over 20 years, according to Politico. Sessions’ election history appears to back up that label. He started his Senate career with an upset, earning a runoff in the 1996 Republican primary. Sessions has built on his 52 percent election result in 1996 to 63 percent in the most recent 2008 Senate elections. He ran unopposed in 2014, earning 97 percent of the vote.
The U.S. Constitution leaves the responsibility of filling Senate vacancies up to the individual states, and the Alabama Constitution requires Gov. Robert Bentley to make a short-term appointment to replace Sessions, with the caveat that the appointee be a member of the same party as the outgoing member. The Constitution also requires the governor hold a special election before the 2018 midterm elections, although it is possible for the governor to wait until that election to replace his appointee.
The 2017 special election would be open to anyone, assuming they meet the requirements for the office of being at least 30 years old, a citizen for at least nine years, and be a current resident of the state of Alabama. The special election would fill the seat until the 2020 election, when Sessions would have had to run again to keep the office of senator. The Republican list to replace Sessions is much longer than the potential Democratic list, due to the states’s requirement that the appointee be of the Republican Party. Since Democrats don’t have a way to win the office until the special election, their list is shorter.
Topping the Republican list is Rep. Mo Brooks, who told reporters with AL.com that he would pursue the seat under two conditions: that Sessions would actually go into the cabinet, and if Sessions didn’t have anyone else he preferred for the post.
“One if is if Jeff Sessions goes into the Cabinet — and I’m encouraging him not to,” Brooks said. “The second if is if Jeff Sessions doesn’t have a preference” for his successor, adding that he hopes Sessions’s recommendation “will be given great weight by the governor.”
Brooks has been a representative from Alabama since 2011, and serves on the House Committee on Armed Services, Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Brooks is considered the moderate choice, with Ballotpedia ranking him as voting with his party on a majority of bills.
He does have a solid electoral history, though, earning 65 percent in the 2012 race, and expanding his lead to 75 percent of the vote in 2014. Brooks earned 67 percent of the vote in the 2016 election.
Another potential appointee that “stands out,” according to Conservative Review, is U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer. Palmer co-founded the Alabama Policy Institute, a state-based think tank that he ran for 24 years before he ran for office in 2014. Conservative Review gives Palmer a “100” score on its Liberty Score. Conservative Review “grades members of Congress using long-term voting records. A letter grade is assigned to each member based on how well they support conservative principles,” according to its website. Palmer voted to remove former Speaker of the House John Boehner from leadership, as well as opposed the highly controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. Palmer did vote in favor of the Iran trade deal.
Palmer earned a runoff in the 2014 Republican primary, defeating Republican Paul DeMarco before winning the seat with 76 percent. Palmer won again in 2016, but by a slightly smaller 75 percent. Voting turnout and election history classify Palmer’s district as a safe Republican seat, which means the seat is unlikely to turn Democratic in the House if Palmer were to take Session’s place.
U.S. Rep. Martha Roby also emerged as a top pick, according to R Street Institute state programs director Cameron Smith. Roby criticized Trump toward the end of the presidential campaign, after the 2005 video of Trump’s comments about women came to light. Roby called on Trump to step aside from the race, and declared that she would no longer vote for him.
Roby is rumored to be open to a gubernatorial bid in 2018, but she has a somewhat weak election history, only winning by nine points in 2016 despite running in a safe Republican district. Roll Call reported Roby could face serious primary challengers in 2018 as a direct result of her comments about Trump. (RELATED: Republicans Dominated The Senate Races, Except The Ones Who Dumped Trump)
Also under consideration is U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, who just earned his 11th term as representative, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. “Having spent 20 years here, I feel like I at least understand how the structure works up here and I would be someone who could hit the ground running,” Aderholt said in an interview at the U.S. Capitol. “Senator Sessions and I have a lot of similar views on things and I would be able to continue on with a lot of the stuff he has worked on.”
Aderholt does have extended experience in Washington, D.C., but he is hardly the only Republican in contention that has D.C. experience. Aderholt currently serves on the powerful House Committee on Appropriations, and chairs the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies. Aderholt served in D.C. since winning office in 1996 with 49.9 percent of the vote. Aderholt ran unopposed in the 2016 election.
On the Democratic side, state Sen. Vivian Figures was the last to launch a bid against Sessions in 2008, when she earned nearly 40 percent of the vote. As state senator, Figures has had limited need for fundraising, drawing doubts that she could credibly run an effective campaign in the special election season. Although that deficit could change if the election is a special election held in 2017, since it would draw national attention from the Democratic Party looking to whittle down Republican numbers in the Senate.
Bentley can decide exactly when the election is held, despite the fact that the expectation is that the election is held up to four months after the position is vacated. If the election is held sometime during the 2017 cycle, then candidates are free to run for the office even if they currently hold other seats in either the state or federal government. If the election is held in 2018, then the field is likely to narrow because members of Congress will be forced to pick a seat to run for.
Bentley currently faces an impeachment investigation into his conduct after it came to light that he sent inappropriate text messages to a staffer, and it is unclear how the investigation will affect Bentley’s decision to hold the election, or if it will at all.
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