U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Mobile.

There is a chance that the 2020 Republican primary to face U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Birmingham, will include two U.S. representatives, the president pro tempore of the Alabama Legislature, a former U.S. attorney general, Alabama’s outspoken state auditor and everyone’s favorite defrocked former state Supreme Court chief justice. It’s a slim chance, though.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Mobile, has announced his candidacy. Others haven’t -- yet. Roy Moore lost to Jones in 2017’s special election and is mired in legal issues regarding allegations of sexual misconduct. Jeff Sessions, the former senator who President Trump hired and fired as attorney general, has been surprisingly coy about the widely held expectation that he would seek his old congressional seat. U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Birmingham, hasn’t followed Byrne into the fray, but state Auditor Jim Zeigler might.

State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has done everything but announce his candidacy and seems poised to wrestle Byrne in what likely will be a winner-take-all Republican primary over the next 13 months. And that GOP contest -- not the Republicans’ challenge against Jones -- is the real suspense surrounding this deliciously intriguing Alabama Senate race.

Jones will give Byrne and his fellow Republicans a Democratic pinada; they’ll whack it with vigor. But the needle-moving issue won’t solely be candidates’ ability to unseat Jones. The 2020 GOP primary will become a referendum on loyalty to President Trump and his policies. It already is, in fact.

Remember the “Access Hollywood” tape on which Trump made offensive comments about women before he was president? When the tape aired, Byrne called for Trump to relinquish the Republican presidential nomination. And in the era of Trump politics, Republicans with even a hint of weakened fealty to the president are at risk. Anything short of ring-kissing is political poison.

Following Byrne’s announcement, Marsh took to Twitter: “Alabamians are clear: we want a Senator who shares our conservative values and will work with President Donald J. Trump to build the wall and drain the swamp.” Later, he told RollCall.com that “(I)t’s easy to listen to the political winds and attack people but … I think that somebody needs to have shown continued support.” Marsh’s official Facebook page this winter has become a collection of pro-Trump, anti-abortion, build-the-wall memes.

And Byrne? “We need a senator who will fight with President Trump to defend the Constitution, build the wall, stand up for the unborn, push for lower taxes, make health care more affordable, and protect the Second Amendment,” he says. His comments about Jones consistently attack the senator for his vote against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “Are you going to stand with President Trump or are you going to be against President Trump?” Byrne said to the Associated Press.

Alabama Republicans, it seems, will select their Senate nominee based more on the Trump factor than qualifications or abilities. That’s the astonishing reality of today’s politics.