Republican Bradley Byrne to challenge Alabama Sen. Doug Jones in 2020

/ AP

Republican Congressman Bradley Byrne of Alabama announced Wednesday that he will challenge U.S. Sen. Doug Jones in 2020 as the GOP tries to reclaim the high-profile seat previously held by Jeff Sessions.

Byrne, 64, is the first Republican to announce his candidacy in what is expected to be a crowded primary field seeking to unseat Jones, the first Democrat elected to the seat in a quarter century.

"I want a U.S. senator who will fight for you and me," Byrne said in making his announcement before supporters in the south Alabama city of Mobile. He used his speech to express support for a border wall, gun rights and to also voice his opposition to abortion.

The primary is to be held March 3, 2020.

Jones' campaign issued a statement calling Byrne a "career politician."

"It doesn't matter if Senator Jones has 1 opponent or 100. His focus is working for the people of Alabama whether it's protecting our auto jobs and farmers against dangerous tariffs or building health care infrastructure in Alabama's rural communities," the Democrat's campaign statement said.

Jones, a former U.S. attorney best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for Birmingham's infamous 1963 church bombing, is the lone Democrat currently holding statewide office in Alabama. Jones won the 2017 special election to replace Sessions by defeating Republican Roy Moore, who faced multiple sexual misconduct allegations, which he denied.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Byrne said Jones doesn't represent "Alabama's interests and Alabama values." He criticized Jones' decision to vote against the confirmation of President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and said that "turned off a lot an awful lot of Alabama citizens."

"Are you going to stand with President Trump or are you going to be against President Trump?" Byrne said.

Jones said in September that he was voting no because of concerns about the "incomplete" vetting of Kavanaugh's nomination and the "credible" testimony of a woman who said Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were teens. Kavanaugh denied the allegations.

After Sessions resigned as U.S. attorney general at Trump's request in November, speculation had swirled that he might make a bid for his old Senate seat, but he has taken no public action in that direction so far.

Byrne said he has spoken with Sessions, but that Sessions should be the one to disclose his own future political intentions.

Byrne was elected to Congress in 2013 from Alabama's 1st Congressional District. He was previously in the Alabama Senate and a chancellor of the Alabama Community College System.

An outspoken critic of the then-powerful teachers' lobby, Byrne made an unsuccessful bid for Alabama governor in 2010. He lost the Republican primary after the lobby helped fund attack ads against him during the primary.

The 2020 race is expected to bring a crowded GOP field with a number of top state Republicans considering runs. State Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh has said he is considering entering the race. The conservative group Club for Growth Action issued polling ahead of Byrne's announcement contending that Rep. Gary Palmer would be a stronger candidate.

Palmer has not announced his intentions.

First published on February 21, 2019

© 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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