WASHINGTON (AP) — The primary season just ended and the general election campaign now unfolding looks the same to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, tea party favorite, foe of immigration legislation and the only Republican senator running in 2014 without a ballot opponent of any stripe.
"Jeff Sessions is probably held in higher esteem than the Alabama football coach and the Auburn football coach put together," says Rep. Mo Brooks, a tea party-backed congressman from the football-mad state.
Sessions has no shortage of detractors, and his good political fortune is a blend of luck and design. It's also one he declines to analyze in any depth as he waits to see if Republicans win a majority this fall and he becomes head of the Senate Budget Committee and leader of an attack on federal deficits.
If so, he said in a recent interview, he will produce a Republican consensus document that balances the budget at least by the end of its 10-year time frame, rather than his own, possibly more conservative, personal blueprint.
Sessions' lack of opposition this fall in a state with a heavy African-American presence stems from a Democratic party weakness so pervasive that it holds none of the statewide offices, only one seat in the nine-member congressional delegation and a minority in both houses of the legislature.
His free ride in the primary was different, though. It resulted from a courtship of the tea party that allowed him to escape the type of primary challenge that dogged GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, bedeviled Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas and nearly toppled Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi.
"I believe the tea party is right on every major issue," Sessions said in an interview. "I say that. They know I believe that ... Taxing more, regulating more, blocking American energy more, bigger government and more welfare is not going to make America a better nation."
Since he ran six autumns ago, Sessions has voted against the federal bailout that President George W. Bush said was needed to prevent an economic collapse, as well as President Barack Obama's economic stimulus and health care law. He opposed numerous increases in the debt limit and a major bill to re-regulate Wall Street after the worst crash in decades. He also aided Sen. Ted Cruz' 2013 overnight filibuster aimed at dramatizing opposition to continued federal funding of the health care law, one of the political highlights of a tea party-backed partial government shutdown.
Sessions says his voting record is designed to represent those in his low-income state who feel ignored by government, rather than to protect big economic entities. Alabama had the ninth-lowest median family income among states in the most recent Census Bureau report on the subject, $43,464 for 2012.
Others take a different view.
Nancy Worley, head of the state Democratic party, said Sessions is "anti-working person, anti-public education, anti-health care reform and anti-most issues that would help just ordinary citizens in the working class."
Benard Simelton, head of the state NAACP, said the three-term senator opposes anything that is "progressive in nature." He recalled seeking a meeting during a 2006 trip to Washington. The senator "was not available," he said, and he hasn't sought to see him since.
Democrats say privately that Sessions is moving slowly in proposing judges for two vacancies in the state, openings that Obama could fill.
Tea party groups are not among his detractors.
"There's only one Jeff Sessions, but we wish we had five more of him in the U.S. Senate," the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund gushed in a campaign announcement. "In fact, this may be the easiest endorsement we ever made," later added the organization that opposed Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, McConnell, Cochran and Roberts.
In an interview, Jenny Beth Martin, head of the group, credited Sessions with taking the time to personally explain why he differed with her on one issue.
Becky Gerritson, head of the Wetumpka, Alabama, Tea Party, said Sessions has been in touch personally more than once to check on the FBI's progress in investigating allegations she made before Congress about the IRS' targeting of her group.
On immigration, Gerritson said Sessions tries "hard to protect American workers and he understands that expanding the labor pool with lower paid" workers won't do that.
The immigration legislation was on the Senate floor for weeks in 2013, when it wasn't clear if Sessions would face campaign opposition.
As the bill's opponent-in-chief, he said it would provide amnesty for millions.
Equally prominent was his warning of harm to low-wage American workers who have suffered much in a weak economy.
The bill's supporters hailed the news when the Congressional Budget Office said the legislation would boost the economy and reduce deficits.
Sessions saw it differently.
"It's going to raise unemployment and push down wages," he said. "The impact will be harshest for today's low-income Americans."