In Trump, Alabama's senator finds political kindred spirit

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions would seem to have little in common.

Sessions is a polite Southerner from small-town Alabama, while Trump is a brash New Yorker and creature of the big city spotlight. Sessions likes to spend weekends out of cellphone range in a rural corner of his home state. Trump retreats to Mar-a-Lago, his lavish Florida compound, where he's easily accessible on social media or for a television appearance.

Yet the two have become kindred political spirits in the 2016 election, drawn together by a shared belief that Republican Party leaders are selling out their own voters on immigration, as well as on trade. It's an argument Sessions has made for years in relative obscurity and one Trump has ridden to the top of the Republican presidential primary field.

"I do think the Republican Party needs to recognize that it is in danger of promoting an agenda that's contrary to the wishes of its own voters," Sessions said. "This can be a death blow."

As the first — and to this point, only — senator to endorse Trump, Sessions has taken on the role as Washington gatekeeper for the GOP front-runner. He's assembled the candidate's foreign policy leadership team and sends other experts Trump's way.

"When it came to immigration, which is a very big issue for me, and trade, which is an enormous issue for me, I felt he's the most respected person in Washington," Trump said of Sessions during an interview with The Associated Press.

It's an unlikely turn in the political spotlight for the 69-year-old Sessions, who has hardly been viewed as a significant political player during his nearly 20 years in the Senate. He's the longest-serving Republican in the Senate without a committee chairmanship or leadership post. And he's increasingly been out of step with his party's leaders on major issues, including his staunch opposition to the sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

If Sessions has been known for anything outside his home state in recent years, it's been as the target of immigration advocates, who have branded him a nativist for his support of tough enforcement policies and limiting legal immigration.

"He's the most ardent, anti-immigrant restrictionist that you can find," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America's Voice. "He comes from the kick-them-out-and-keep-them-out camp."

Sessions sees Trump's rise as validation of his believe that Republicans' political success depends not on expanding its appeal with the fast-growing Hispanic voting bloc, but on taking positions that help working class voters who view job competition from immigrants and trade agreements as a threat to their own economic security.

Despite their shared political philosophy, Sessions' endorsement didn't come easy for Trump.

Trump began courting Sessions' support and seeking policy guidance from the senator's staff shortly after announcing his candidacy.

Sessions grew fond of Trump, but resisted endorsing him. Sessions had never publicly backed a candidate in a GOP primary before, and preferred to make the case for his views through data-driven policy papers. It's not unusual for his aides to distribute lengthy documents to fellow senators, or for Sessions' himself to push materials into a colleague's hand.

A turning point came in January, when the senator joined other lawmakers and prominent conservatives at a private retreat in Sea Island, Georgia.

Sessions became incensed as one high-profile speaker in particular railed on Trump, warning that he would be destructive for the party. Though Sessions wasn't scheduled to speak, he stood up unexpectedly and berated his colleagues for being the ones putting the party's future at risk by failing to fully understand their voters' economic concerns.

About a month later, Sessions joined Trump on stage at a rally in Madison, Alabama, and announced his endorsement. Two days later, Trump won Sessions' home state by more than 20 points.

If Trump does become the Republican nominee — he's on a narrow path to getting the delegates he needs, otherwise faces the unpredictability of a contested convention — some see Sessions as a natural fit in the administration if the businessman goes on to be president.

"This certainly raises his stature," said Alabama Democrat Roger Bedford, who lost narrowly to Sessions in a 1996 Senate race. "If he wants to be anything more than a U.S. senator, if that is indeed his motive, he made the right move by endorsing early and enthusiastically."

Sessions has publicly downplayed the notion that he's angling for a high-ranking post in a potential Trump administration. And those close to him — including Trump — say he seems to harbor little ambition beyond representing the people of Alabama.

"I hope they understand how committed he is to them," Trump said.

___

AP writers Bill Barrow and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

___

Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

|

..