MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s control of hundreds of military promotions over the Pentagon’s abortion policy has gripped much of Washington in recent weeks. President Joe Biden has addressed it, as has his candidate for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Democrats have criticized him, and members of his own party have said they wish the Alabama senator would calm down.
But at home, the issue isn’t causing the same kind of ripple, though it’s drawing support from some conservative voices in the state. NBC News spoke to dozens of Tuberville constituents, and most said they had not heard of his control over military promotions or his comments on 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 haven’t seen any media coverage,» added Lyric Dennis, a student at Alabama State University.
The Democrats, however, have made it clear that they want to change that and intend to link the GOP to what Tuberville is doing.
Passing military promotions has long been a bipartisan tradition in the Senate, but since February, Tuberville has been blocking all military personnel promotions that require Senate confirmation, with more than 250 nominations now in limbo. Among some of the more notable roles without permanent replacements is that of Commander of the Navy, a position that is now vacant for the first time in more than a century.
Tuberville’s control over military promotions is tied to his pressure for the Pentagon to drop its policy-making accommodations, such as time off and travel reimbursement, if service members or their families need to leave state to receive reproductive rights services.
With promotions uncertain, military families may find themselves in limbo about where they will move and their next steps, including schools for their children or jobs for their spouses.
Tuberville has said he faces «zero» pressure from his party to end the blockade, and the Chairman of the Alabama Republican Party He has also said that the senator is «reflecting the will of the people of Alabama.»
Tuberville spokesman Steve Stafford reiterated that the senator is receiving support in a comment to NBC News on Tuesday.
“I just toured Alabama with the coach last offseason and the support was overwhelming,” Stafford said, referring to Tuberville’s time as head football coach for Auburn University. “The vast majority of calls within the state to our offices are positive. In every way, 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 to NBC News expressed frustration when told what Tuberville was doing.
«Knowing this now, there’s no way I’m going to 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?»
“I’m from a military family too, so it would 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,” Dennis added.
Tony, an Alabama resident and active duty member of the service for 20 years, said he felt like a political pawn and has had friends and colleagues affected by the lockdown. He asked that only his first name be used for privacy reasons.
“When you get home, the idea is that your life is not as complicated as when you were abroad serving your country in danger. The simpler you can make a service member’s life, especially when it comes to finances, rank, structure and family life, the better it will be,” she said.
But Alabama’s electorate is overwhelmingly Republican; the state opted for Donald Trump by 25 percentage points. And many conservatives who spoke to NBC News expressed strong support for what the senator is doing.
“I agree with what you are doing as far as my values, my Christian values,” said Randy Knowles, a resident of Lake Martin, Alabama, adding: “I think if [Tuberville] hold 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 «improved» because of his stance against the Pentagon’s abortion policy.
«Has won over the skepticsPoor said.
However, if the Democrats have their way, what Tuberville is doing will reverberate across the entire party.
In a memo first obtained by NBC News, the White House described the Republican Party as complicit and said Republican senators were mounting «barely a word of protest.» The memo comes after President Biden called Tuberville’s position «ridiculous» during a news conference in Helsinki on Thursday.
“I hope the Republican Party will rise up, stand up, and do something about it. It is in his power to do that,” Biden said.
And the abortion issue proved difficult for Republicans in the midterms after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. Democrats were able to channel voter frustration into better-than-expected performances in both the House and Senate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., told NBC News that he, too, opposes the Pentagon’s abortion policy, but believes the Tuberville blockade has to end.
«We have to end the problem of delaying promotion,» Graham said last week.
Richard Fording, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama, said that because the state has such a «disproportionate» portion of its population who have served or are serving in the military, Tuberville’s strategy is «risky.»
«He’s certainly putting his own interests before the interests of the party, and I don’t think this is going to serve him well,» Fording said. «And to the extent that the voters in Alabama, the Republicans, are sophisticated enough to understand the implications of that, I think that could hurt him.»
But, he added, Tuberville may be fine unless its control begins to affect rank and file military members and their families.
“Ultimately, in Alabama, the way it’s going to be interpreted is by standing up for the right principles. And so, it probably won’t hurt. But nationally, I think it’s not good for the Republican Party at all,” he added.
People like Kelly Stazel pose part of that risk.
Stazel, a Montgomery resident and registered Republican, said that as a Christian who opposes abortion but also someone who identifies as a feminist, she felt «conflicted.»
“The fact that Roe v. Wade being overturned was very surprising to a lot of people,” he said. «I, of course, support that, but putting someone’s future in jeopardy over that doesn’t seem right to me.»
Tuberville says he will not relinquish his control unless a vote on the Pentagon’s abortion policy is tabled 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 accompanying amendment that would end Pentagon policy on abortion, but the controversial provision is unlikely to be included in the NDAA passed by the Senate.