MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Stepping up to address a Republican club meeting at the Farmer's Market Cafe, a meat-and-three restaurant not far from the Alabama Capitol, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne gave a version of the oft-repeated phrase of his U.S. Senate campaign.
"I'm a Christian. I''m a conservative. I'm a fighter. I vote with President Trump 97 percent of the time," Byrne said.
A fight is indeed what Byrne is in.
The three-term congressman is giving up his safe congressional seat — which is up for election this year — to run instead for the Senate seat now held by U.S. Sen. Doug Jones. Now in the fight for his political life, Byrne is battling to make the anticipated runoff in the GOP primary.
The crowded field includes former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is seeking to reclaim the seat he had for 20 years, and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who comes to the race armed with football fame. Also in the race are former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, businessman Stanley Adair and state Rep. Arnold Mooney.
"What do you think about Jeff Sessions jumping back in the race after what he did to our president," a woman shouted at Byrne as he took questions during his Montgomery campaign stop. Sessions left the Senate to become President Donald Trump's attorney general, a position he was forced to resign when his recusal from the Russia inquiry prompted blistering public criticism from Trump.
"I thought so much of it I stayed in the race. How's that?" Byrne replied.
Byrne has said he expects to be in a two-person runoff with Sessions, whom he says encouraged him in his Senate race before deciding to enter the race himself.
Byrne has recently stepped up attacks on Sessions and Tuberville. A new Byrne campaign ad dismisses Sessions as someone who "let the President down and got fired" with a caption of how Trump once called Sessions his "biggest mistake."
Responding, Sessions spokesman John Rogers said, "when a candidate is desperate and losing, they always attack."
During a campaign stop, Byrne took obligatory verbal shots at Jones, criticizing Jones' support of gun control measures such as universal background checks. "Gun control in Alabama means you use both hands," Byrne quipped to laughter.
Like all other Republicans in the race, Byrne has stressed his loyalty to Trump, and policies such as building a border wall.
Byrne in 2016 briefly called for then-candidate Trump to step aside after the release of Trump's vulgar outtakes "Access Hollywood" about grabbing women, but Byrne quickly backtracked and said he would support the Trump-led GOP ticket.
Trump has said very little about the Alabama race, but praised Byrne as he was celebrating his impeachment acquittal and giving shout-outs to select supporters.
"Bradley Byrne. Alabama. What a great place," Trump said.
Byrne was previously in the Alabama Senate and served as chancellor of the Alabama Community College System. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010. He lost the Republican runoff to Robert Bentley after the state teachers' lobby, which Byrne had pointedly criticized, bankrolled an advertising blitz against him. He was elected to Congress in 2013 defeating a tea party supporter as his campaign was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and more than two dozen members of Congress.
It is Byrne's experience that appeals to Regina Wright, a 61-year-old property manager. While some gravitate to outsider candidates, Wright said she thinks Byrne's resume makes him the best bet to go to the Senate and be effective.
"I really think he's sincere," Wright said after listening to four candidates debate in Florence.
The congressman has kept up a frenetic pace since announcing his campaign.
In a race where only two can make the runoff, no one wants to come in third.
"I'm a fighter. You put me in that ring and I'm going to punch away," Byrne said.