IRONDALE, Ala. (AP) — As former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville made his way through the Irondale Cafe on Monday, diners stood up from plates of fried green tomatoes to ask for selfies or to greet him with a hearty Auburn “War Eagle” or a teasing “Roll Tide.”
Some launched into political questions, asking about his ongoing race for U.S. Senate and his stances on issues such as immigration.
Boosted by fame from years as a coach in a state where college football is king, Tuberville has become a front-runner in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Running a campaign that stresses his status as a political outsider, Tuberville is part of a crowded Republican primary field competing with former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions who is seeking to reclaim the Senate seat he held for two decades.
“We need change. The state needs a voice. We don't need a voice for Washington, D.C.," Tuberville said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The winner of the crowded primary, which also includes U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, former Chief Justice Roy Moore, businessman Stanley Adair and state Rep. Arnold Mooney, will face incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November.
A native of Arkansas, Tuberville was head football coach at Auburn from 1999 to 2008. He retired from coaching in 2016 after leaving the University of Cincinnati.
“People ask me what makes you think you are qualified. Because I've actually had a job. Most career politicians, they get their news from the newspaper and TV. They don't live in the real world like I've lived," Tuberville said.
Tuberville said his experience working with young men in high school and college football programs has given him a window into struggles of many families. “We've got a great state, a great country but a lot of people are hurting," Tuberville said. He said immigration, healthcare and the national debt are among the top concerns he hears from voters. He also noted the closure of 14 rural hospitals and the number of homes without internet service.
Fran Glendinning, a 70-year-old retired fitness instructor, said meeting Tuberville on Monday cemented her decision to vote for him. She said she likes that he will be a newcomer to Washington as well as his pledge not to take a salary if elected to the U.S. Senate
“He is not a part of these politicians,” she said. She summarized what she is looking for in a candidate as: "I want a Christian conservative who will stand behind President Trump."
The primary has become a race to embrace Trump, with candidates stressing their ties and loyalty to him. Sessions notes he was the first senator to endorse Trump's 2016 candidacy. Byrne tells crowds that he votes with Trump almost all of the time.
Tuberville, who has Trump's name on the back of his campaign bus, has also said in a campaign ad that he believes “God sent us Donald Trump."
“I do believe that Donald Trump was sent here by God to help this country because we were in a death spiral. We are truly in trouble,” Tuberville said.
Sessions has made an issue of Tuberville's residency, in a new ad calling him a “tourist in Alabama” who moved from Florida to run for U.S. Senate.
Tuberville has recently voted in Florida, where he has also taken his homestead exemption. Tuberville changed his voter registration to Alabama in March of 2019, according to the Alabama secretary of state's office.
Tuberville, who has a farm outside of Auburn, said that he considers Alabama to be his home.
Most observers anticipate the race will end up in a runoff between the top two finishers. Headed into the home stretch of the race, Tuberville said he's optimistic as he continues a bus tour across the state.
“I never looked at the scoreboard when I was coaching so I'm not looking now. I'm on the goal line, so I want to get across the goal line. At the end of the day, I can safely say, just from my perspective, I've done everything I can do," Tuberville said.