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Congressional primaries: Sessions in Alabama Senate runoff

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump used a scolding tweet Wednesday to undermine his former attorney general's attempt for a political comeback, hours after Jeff Sessions was forced into a Republican primary runoff for his old Senate seat in Alabama.

Trump’s online outburst came as Sessions faces a March 31 matchup against former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, a political novice. For that contest in the GOP stronghold, Sessions will need as much support as possible from Trump-friendly voters.

It was Trump’s latest eruption over Sessions' 2017 decision, as head of the Justice Department, to withdraw from overseeing the investigation into Russia’s efforts to assist Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt. Recuses himself on FIRST DAY in office, and the Mueller Scam begins!” Trump wrote in his tweet after Super Tuesday's races.

Voters in Alabama, North Carolina, Texas and California picked dozens of candidates for Election Day’s contests for control of Congress. The races were giving party leaders an initial look at whether 2020 voters were reacting to the combative era of Trump by showing a preference for centrist or ideological candidates.

North Carolina Democrats chose establishment-backed moderate Cal Cunningham over a progressive challenger to battle GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, who was easily renominated. That set the stage for a pivotal November showdown that will help decide which party runs the Senate next year.

In Texas, MJ Hegar, backed by national Democrats, advanced to a runoff for her party's nod to oppose GOP Sen. John Cornyn, who cruised to renomination. Hegar's runoff rival was unclear in incomplete returns early Wednesday.

Sessions hoped the sour relationship he endured with Trump as his first attorney general wouldn't derail his Alabama comeback bid. In incomplete results, Sessions trailed Tuberville slightly and lagged behind the combined total for Tuberville and Rep. Bradley Byrne, his next nearest rival, by nearly 2-1, a clear danger sign for a household name like Sessions. Alabama requires a runoff if no candidate receives more than half the primary's votes.

Sessions was one of the most conservative senators when he joined Trump's Cabinet. Their relationship crumbled, and Sessions resigned in 2018. In the primary, Sessions cast himself as a Trump loyalist anyway. Trump remained virtually silent, which didn't help Sessions. His rivals promoted their own fealty to Trump, with Tuberville saying in an ad, “God sent us Donald Trump."

The GOP primary winner will be favored in November against Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat. Jones defeated former Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in a 2017 special election after Moore was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with teenagers decades ago when he was in his 30s. Moore limped this time to a weak fourth-place finish.

The congressional contests were undercards to the day's Democratic presidential primaries in 14 states and one territory. Moderate former Vice President Joe Biden was waging a reinvigorated fight against avowed democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, all but winnowing the field to a two-candidate competition over confronting Trump in November.

Still, Tuesday's races marked the start of months of congressional primaries. North Carolina's Tillis is one of the GOP's most vulnerable incumbents as it defends its 53-47 Senate majority. He alienated conservatives by briefly opposing Trump's move to defy Congress and channel federal funds to building a wall along the Mexican border. Tillis' fate will hinge on how Trump, who's since endorsed him, fares in the swing state come November.

Cunningham is a former state senator who served as an Army lawyer in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose centrist stances were attractive to party leaders. His closest competitor was liberal state Sen. Erica Smith, who waged a long-shot effort to become the first African American woman elected to the Senate from the South. She was badly outspent, despite $3 million disbursed on her behalf by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who'd hoped to undermine Cunningham.

In Texas, Cornyn was nominated for a fourth term and seems difficult for Democrats to dislodge in November. Hegar, the Democrat, lost a surprisingly close 2018 House race and was backed by her party's hierarchy after former Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke declined to challenge Cornyn. She was an Air Force helicopter pilot who was wounded in Afghanistan.

Her challengers included longtime state Sen. Royce West and Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, a liberal political organizer endorsed by progressive luminaries such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. In a district wriggling from the Mexican border to San Antonio, eight-term Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the House's most conservative Democrats, was trying to hold his sprawling South Texas district against liberal challenger Jessica Cisneros.

Around Fort Worth, 12-term GOP Rep. Kay Granger foiled a challenge from conservative Chris Putnam. Granger, who has helped cut budget compromises as top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, was criticized as too moderate by Putnam, who drew support from the anti-spending Club for Growth.

Conservative Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy will defend his district, which stretches west from Austin and San Antonio, against Democrat Wendy Davis. He will be favored against Davis, who is best known for her 13-hour 2013 filibuster against an anti-abortion bill in the state Senate.

Former Rep. Pete Sessions, defeated in his Dallas district in 2018 after 11 terms, made a GOP runoff for a more Republican-leaning open seat around Waco. Former Trump White House physician Ronny Jackson reached a Republican runoff for a North Texas district.

California, whose heavily Democratic 53-seat delegation is Congress' largest, featured all-party primaries Tuesday. Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez of Los Angeles might face a liberal challenger when each contest's top two finishers meet in November.

Associated Press writer Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report

Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”

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