MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill announced Tuesday he's joining a growing field of Republican primary candidates competing for a chance to unseat Democratic Sen. Doug Jones next year.
"Let's take this Senate seat back and give it back to the people of Alabama," Merrill said in a news conference at the Alabama Capitol to announce he's joining a crowded field of GOP candidates.
With more than 100 cheering supporters standing behind him, Merrill called himself a "conservative reformer" who could win back the Senate seat previously held by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Merrill's entry into the race comes at the same time that speculation has persisted that Sessions could try to recapture his old seat. Sen. Richard Shelby said Tuesday that Sessions would be "formidable" if he entered the race, but the "real question" is if Sessions wants to come back.
In his announcement Tuesday, Merrill said Alabama needs a "proven conservative" in the Senate who will help President Donald Trump on immigration, judicial appointments and other issues.
"We have to have someone go to Washington, D.C., that is going to support the president and help the president build the wall to stop the immigration fiasco that is currently ongoing in our nation," Merrill said.
The crowded field increases the chances that the March 3, 2020 GOP primary will head to a runoff if no candidate tops 50 percent of the primary vote.
The field already includes former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, legislator Arnold Mooney and businessman Stanley Adair.
With two statewide elections under his belt and a busy travel and media schedule that regularly takes him to all counties of the state, Merrill is well-known to Alabama voters. That could give him a boost in the crowded field. But he also faces other well-known candidates including Moore, Tuberville and Byrne, who ran for governor in 2010.
Jones, the sole Democrat to hold statewide office in Alabama, defeated Moore in the 2017 special election. Republicans have made reclaiming the Senate seat in the once reliably red state a top priority in the 2020 elections.
In announcing his campaign, Merrill took expected jabs at Democrats, saying Jones would be more suited to representing California or New York. He said Alabama needs someone who "will stand with the president to stop this socialist overhaul that is attempted to be levied by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi."
The 55-year-old Republican was elected secretary of state in 2014 and re-elected in 2018. He's a former member of the Alabama House of Representatives where he co-sponsored the state's voter ID law that requires people to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls.
As secretary of state, Merrill's voter roll management has been criticized by some voting rights groups. Critics also said he should have done more to advertise a change in state law that allowed more people with felony convictions to vote.
Merrill has responded that the state is following the law, and dismissed the criticism as coming from groups with political agendas.
Sen. Richard Shelby said Tuesday that Sessions would be "formidable" if he entered the race, but the "real question" is if Sessions wants to come back.
Shelby said he has spoken with President Donald Trump about the race and spoke with Sessions last week. He said Sessions "hasn't made a 'Sherman statement,'" referring to the Civil War general's refusal to run for president.
Merrill said he considers Sessions one of his heroes, and they would have a conversation if Sessions did decide to enter.
Associated Press reporter Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report from Washington.