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Sen. Tommy Tuberville bets Alabama will back his military blockade

Many of the senator’s constituents hadn’t heard what he was doing in interviews with NBC News, even as his actions have gripped Washington. 
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., during a Senate hearing on May 2, 2023.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., at a Senate hearing May 2.Jose Luis Magana / AP file

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s hold on hundreds of military promotions over the Defense Department’s abortion policy has gripped much of Washington in recent weeks. President Joe Biden has addressed it, as has his nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Democrats have called him out, and members of his own party have said they wish the Alabama senator would let up. 

But back home, the issue isn’t making the same sort of waves — although he is getting support from some conservative voices in the state. NBC News spoke to dozens of Tuberville’s constituents, and most said they hadn’t heard about his hold on military promotions or his comments about white nationalism. 

“I had no idea about that,” said Brandon Watkins, a disabled veteran who joined the Air Force after 9/11. 

“No media coverage. I’ve not seen any media coverage,” added Lyric Dennis, a student at Alabama State University.

Democrats, however, have made clear they want to change that and intend to tie the Republican Party to what Tuberville is doing.

Approving military promotions has long been a bipartisan tradition in the Senate, but since February, Tuberville has been blocking every military personnel promotion that requires Senate confirmation, with more than 250 nominations now in limbo. Among some of the most notable roles without permanent replacements is the Marine commandant, a position that is now vacant for the first time in over a century. 

Tuberville’s hold on military promotions is tied to his push for the Pentagon to drop its policymaking accommodations — such as time off and reimbursement for travel expenses — if service members or their family need to go out of state for reproductive rights services. 

With uncertainty about promotions, military families may find themselves in limbo about where they're moving and their next steps — including schools for their children or jobs for spouses.

Tuberville has said he’s facing "zero" pressure from his party to end his blockade, and the chair of the Alabama GOP has also said the senator is “reflecting the desire of the people of Alabama.”

Tuberville spokesman Steve Stafford reiterated Tuesday that the senator is getting support.

“I just traveled across Alabama with Coach during the last recess and the support was overwhelming," Stafford told NBC News, referring to Tuberville's time as a college football coach, including at Auburn University. "The vast majority of in-state calls to our offices are positive. By all measures, Coach’s strong stand in support of the Constitution and the right to life has only grown his popularity in Alabama.”

But some veterans and members of military families who spoke with NBC News did express frustration when told what Tuberville was doing. 

“Knowing this now, there is no way I would join the military,” Watkins said. “The enlistment rate is going to be very low, for any branch of the military. Because if they’re telling you, ‘Well, it’s going to be hard to get promoted,’ why go?” 

Dennis, the college student, said, “I’m a military family too, so it’d be crazy if my dad couldn’t get to where he needed to be and we didn’t even know where he was going to be next."

Tony, an Alabama resident and active service member for 20 years, said he felt like a political pawn and has had friends and colleagues affected by the blockade. He asked that only his first name be used for privacy reasons. 

“When you come home, the idea is for your life to not be as complicated as when you were overseas serving your country in harm’s way. The simpler you can make a service member’s life, especially when it comes to finances, rank, structure and family life, the better off it is,” he said. 

But Alabama’s electorate is overwhelmingly Republican; the state went for Donald Trump by 25 percentage points. And plenty of conservatives who spoke with NBC News expressed strong support for what the senator is doing. 

“I agree with what he is doing as far as my values, my Christian values,” Randy Knowles, a resident of Lake Martin, Alabama, said, adding, “I think if he [Tuberville] holds out long enough, I think it will force some changes.”

Jeff Poor, a conservative radio host in Alabama, told The Hill that Tuberville's standing with conservatives has "gotten better" because of his stance against the Pentagon abortion policy.

"He's won over the skeptical," Poor said.

Yet if Democrats have their way, what Tuberville is doing will reverberate throughout the Republican Party. 

In a memo first obtained by NBC News, the White House painted the GOP as complicit, saying that Republican senators were mounting “barely a word of protest.” The memo comes after President Joe Biden called Tuberville’s position “ridiculous” during a news conference in Helsinki on Thursday. 

“I expect the Republican Party to stand up — stand up — and do something about it. It’s in their power to do that,” Biden said. 

And the issue of abortion proved tricky for Republicans in the midterm elections after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. Democrats were able to channel voter frustration into better-than-expected performances in both the House and Senate. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told NBC News that he also opposes the Pentagon's abortion policy but believes Tuberville's blockade has to end.

"The point about holding up promotions, we need to end that," Graham said last week.

Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama, said that because such a “disproportionate” share of the state's population has served, or is serving, in the military, Tuberville’s strategy is “risky.”

“He’s certainly putting sort of his own interests ahead of the interests of the party, and I don’t think that this is going to serve him well,” Fording said. “And to the extent that voters in Alabama, Republicans, are sort of sophisticated enough to understand the implications of that, then I think that could hurt him.” 

But, he added, Tuberville may be fine unless his hold starts affecting rank-and-file military members and their families. 

“Ultimately in Alabama, the way it’ll be interpreted is standing up for the right principles. And so, it probably won’t hurt him," Fording said. "But nationally, I think it’s not good for the Republican Party at all." 

People like Kelly Stazel represent some of that risk.

Stazel, a resident of Montgomery and a registered Republican, said that as a Christian who opposes abortion but also as someone who identifies as a feminist, she felt “conflicted.” 

“The fact that Roe v. Wade got overturned was very surprising for a lot of people,” she said. “I, of course, support that, but to jeopardize somebody’s future because of that, does not seem right to me.”

Tuberville says he won’t drop his hold unless a vote on the Pentagon’s abortion policy comes to the floor and if the White House and Pentagon agree that if the vote fails, the policy is rescinded. On Friday, the House narrowly passed the National Defense Authorization Act with an amendment attached that would end the Pentagon’s policy on abortion, but it’s unlikely the provision will be included in the Senate-passed version of the bill.