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Will former football coach Tommy Tuberville’s strategy of avoiding issues, debates win Senate seat?

Pete Thamel
·5-min read

Back when Tommy Tuberville worked as a swashbuckling young coach at Ole Miss in the late 1990s, he earned the nickname “Riverboat Gambler” for his propensity to onside kick and ignore the odds on fourth downs. He’d often press his luck on national television games, hoping to capture viewers.

Nearly a quarter-century and a few coaching jobs later, Tuberville is running for the U.S. Senate in Alabama. And his campaign strategy is much different than the high-risk bravado that formed his early coaching reputation.

In football parlance, Tuberville’s first political campaign is operating on a “punt to win” mantra, as he’s avoided debate, shown little expertise on issues and generally avoided any exposure that would have him expound on issues in a public forum. His Republican candidacy has drafted off the popularity of President Trump in Alabama, putting him comfortably ahead in the polling heading into Tuesday’s election.

With the political direction of the United States Senate in flux, a race between a football coach who has never held public office and an incumbent, Doug Jones, with a nationally recognized name would be the kind of local race that emerges as national fodder. Especially with the possibility that Tuberville’s potential election could swing the Senate to the Republicans.

Instead, Tuberville is such a comfortable favorite – 13 points in the latest polls – that the race has little national resonance. What if Jones were to pull the upset? “It would be like Troy beating LSU,” said David Mowery, chairman of the Alabama-based Mowery Consulting Group, referencing an upset from the 2017 college football season.

Pick your football cliché. Tuberville is running between the tackles, draining the play clock and moving chains in a way that would warm the heart of any former defensive coach. It’s hard to argue from a strategy perspective. John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster and political consultant, gives him a 90 percent chance of winning on Tuesday. In other words, Tuberville is ready to put his campaign in victory formation.

FILE- In this Tuesday, July 14, 2020, file photo, former Auburn coach, Tommy Tuberville, speaks to supporters after he defeated Senator Jeff Sessions in the runoff election in Montgomery, Ala. U.S. Sen. Doug Jones is outspending Tuberville in the home stretch of Alabama’s Senate race.   (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)
In this Tuesday, July 14, 2020, photo, former Auburn coach, Tommy Tuberville, speaks to supporters after he defeated Senator Jeff Sessions in the runoff election in Montgomery, Ala. U.S. Sen. Doug Jones is outspending Tuberville in the home stretch of Alabama’s Senate race. (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

So while pivotal Senate races rage on in states like Arizona, Maine, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia and Colorado, Alabama’s race feels more like a coronation for Tuberville.

And Tuberville is doing little to gather attention. He never agreed to debate Jones. And he’s done little media, as he can basically only do wrong. This is antithetical to Tuberville’s time as a coach, as he was long one of the most accessible and reliable coaches to return a phone call in the sport. Often, he’d call just to gossip. These days, his voicemail tells you to email an address on his campaign website.

But Mowery said Tuberville’s media and overall strategy has been like the old coaching cliché about throwing the ball – only three things can happen, and two of them are bad. So they aren’t throwing.

A few bad things have happened, exposing Tuberville’s political novice. He’s been quoted as saying he wants to be on the Senate “banking finance” committee, despite those being two separate entities. He also bumbled his way through an answer to a question about the Voting Rights Act, an especially clumsy moment considering that act’s history in the state of Alabama.

None of those verbal fumbles cost Tuberville significantly in the polls. But Tuberville’s lack of experience and policy shortcomings have provided plenty of Twitter fodder for Alabama Democrats. With few policy positions to question, they’ve resorted to skewering parts of Tuberville’s football career, including a viral tweet that includes a dig about a loss to Vanderbilt.

James Carville, the renowned political consultant, used this football analogy: “He’s got a 24-3 lead. He’s going to run the ball, play prevent defense and run the clock out. It’s not necessarily a stupid thing to do. He’d never run before. He’s never going to debate or do anything like that. He’s never thrown a pass in an SEC game, he doesn’t have to pass. He’s ahead 24-3.” (Carville, for the record, thinks the campaign could end up closer that the polling indicates.)

It takes a special set of circumstances for a Republican to lose in a hard-red state like Alabama, where Trump won more than 62 percent of the vote in 2016. That happened in a 2017 run-off between Roy Moore and Jones, who won only after allegations of sexual misconduct by Moore by at least five different women derailed his campaign.

Tuberville’s 13 percent lead in the polls shows his more difficult battle was likely with Jeff Sessions in the primary. Tuberville won about 60 percent of the vote in that runoff, as he leaned heavily on Trump’s support after Trump’s and Sessions’ public falling out.

For Tuberville to lose on Tuesday, Couvillon estimates that “about 300,000” voters for Trump would have to pick Jones on the same ballot. “That’s a pretty tall order,” he said, noting with a chuckle that Tuscaloosa would be one of the areas that Jones would need to thrive.

That’s, of course, the setting of the University of Alabama. They are arch rivals of Auburn, where Tuberville went 13-0 in 2004 and won the SEC. That’s Tuberville’s most famous coaching season, as he went 159-99 over 21 years as a head coach.

He appears to be on the cusp of being famous in a totally new arena, coasting to the Senate with a defiant campaign strategy. In a state where the only riverboat gamble appears to be speaking out on the issues, Tuberville isn’t about to run a strategy reverse.

“He’s going to be another guy,” Carville said, “who won in a state that he couldn’t lose in.”

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