Sen. Richard Shelby, who has represented Alabama in the United States Congress since 1979 and in the Senate since 1987, has decided that his sixth and current term will be his last.
Shelby made the announcement on the Senate floor Monday, and also released it through his official Senate website. It was a call that many political observers in Alabama had expected when the Democrats took the majority after winning Georgia’s two Senate seats in runoff elections early in January.
“For everything there is a season,” Shelby said to begin his speech.
“I have done my best to address challenges and find ways to improve the day-to-day lives of all Americans. I have also focused on the economic challenges of Alabamians, increasing access to education and promoting facilities to improve the quality of schools.
“I have worked to enhance Alabama’s role in space exploration and the security of our nation. Further, I have supported the utilization of Alabama’s greatest resources, including its unparalleled river system and the Port of Mobile.”
As the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Shelby used his political muscle to steer federal funds to his home state. Recently, he has used his influence to try to move the U.S. Space Command headquarters to Huntsville. But the GOP loss of the majority cost Shelby his role as chairman of the committee, and much of the influence that goes with it.
Over his six terms, Shelby has served as either chairman or vice chairman — depending on which party held the majority at the time — of the Appropriations, Rules, Banking and Intelligence committees.
Former state legislator Steve Flowers, whose weekly column about Alabama politics is carried in dozens of newspapers, summed up succinctly what Shelby’s loss will mean to Alabama: “Richard Shelby is irreplaceable.”
“In 2015, I wrote a book about Alabama political history, and in that book I had a chapter called ‘Alabama’s Three Greatest Senators.’ In that list was Lister Hill, John Sparkman and Richard Shelby. If I were to write that book today, Richard Shelby would be in a league by himself,” Flowers said. “Alabama’s going to be lost without Shelby. We will almost evaporate as a state.”
In a time when the old political saying “bringing home the bacon” has fallen out of favor, Shelby continued to do so without apology, but also without publicity. Rare is the press release or social media post from his office touting a spending bill that benefitted the state, even though there have been ample opportunities. Because of that, many Alabamians are unaware of the scope of federal money that flowed to the state because of Shelby’s work, Flowers said.
“They may never realize or appreciate what he’s done for Alabama. The importance of being chairman of the Appropriations Committee, nobody from Alabama will probably ever share that again,” Flowers said. “The state docks widening in Mobile — Richard Shelby. The reason that Redstone Arsenal has the number one telecommunications technology place in America is Richard Shelby. UAB is a major research player in America and the largest employer in the state of Alabama, and if you take Shelby out of the equation, it’s not. I’m talking about this year over $500 million going to Redstone Arsenal for only one reason — Richard Shelby. There’s been $785 million in the last five years into UAB research that will be gone — it’ll be gone in three years — because of one man, Richard Shelby.”
Even with the change in the majority last month, Shelby still commands wide influence in part because of his bipartisan relationship with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, who was the vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee beside Shelby. The two men swapped places with the majority change.
Flowers said that Leahy and Shelby have shared a close friendship for years, and that Shelby always looked out for Leahy and his constituents when Republicans were in charge.
Shelby’s days on Capitol Hill were numbered simply by his age, no matter which party is in control. A run for a seventh term would have come just after his 87th birthday. Shelby has served longer in the Senate than any other Alabamian, and also served eight years in the House of Representative before that. Elected as a conservative Democrat, he defeated incumbent Republican Jeremiah Denton in 1986. Eight years later, Shelby switched to the GOP on the heels of the party taking control of both the House and Senate in 1994.
Outgoing Alabama Republican Chairwoman Terry Lathan, who will not seek re-election to the party’s top position when her term expires later this month, remembered Shelby’s legacy in a prepared statement Monday.
“Alabama has truly been blessed to have U.S. Senator Richard Shelby representing our state in Congress for the last 42 years. He has always fought for what is best for his constituents — from expanding economic opportunities to advancing education and research,” she said. “Richard Shelby’s name will be repeated for generations to come when speaking of his deep devotion to Alabama and the massive work he accomplished for our state.”
Announcement Starts Scramble for Shelby’s Senate Seat
Shelby’s announcement fires the starting gun for the 2022 Senate race, and there are several notable figures in state politics who are expected to run.
In December, BirminghamWatch previewed the possible field of candidates. Not a lot has changed since then with the exception of controversy surrounding Rep. Mo Brooks, who has been a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump’s efforts to have his election loss to President Joe Biden overturned. Brooks has also come under fire for statements he made at a rally held just before the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which included, “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”
Brooks faced calls by Democrats for a censure vote after the invasion but told The Hill newspaper on Monday those calls only gave him more publicity, which might help him decide whether to run for re-election to the House or for Shelby’s Senate seat.
“Quite frankly, the last three months of scurrilous and palpable false attacks on me by Socialist Democrats and their fake news media allies have been a wonderful blessing because they have sent my statewide name I.D. and Republican primary support through the roof,” Brooks said to The Hill.
Flowers said that Brooks, through his actions on Trump’s behalf, would end up being detrimental to Alabama’s cause if he were to succeed Shelby. “A right-wing bomb-thrower like Mo Brooks will actually hurt the possibility of federal dollars coming to the state. It will make Alabama a backwater, broke state,” Flowers said.
“It would not surprise me at all if he were to enter the race,” Ryan Williamson, assistant professor of political science at Auburn University, said. “His success is contingent how many others [run]. It’s going to be a very crowded field, so it might behoove the Alabama Republican Party to try to think early on who they want to prop up. If the field splinters too much, you could end up with someone winning a plurality but not a clear majority. That would play to Brooks’ advantage.”
If Brooks runs, he stands a good chance of being Trump’s pick. Brooks has been a staunch supporter of Trump through thick and thin, including the failed efforts to overturn the election results. That could stand Brooks in good stead, as Trump remains immensely popular among many party faithful in Alabama.
Williamson said that Brooks could take a path similar to the one Sen. Tommy Tuberville used to win his election in November over incumbent Democrat Doug Jones: Staying solidly by Trump’s side. “I fully expect that to be the same play with different casts,” Williamson said.
Brooks ran for the Senate in the 2017 special election to replace Jeff Sessions, who had resigned to become attorney general in the Trump administration. Brooks missed the Republican runoff when he finished third to Luther Strange, who had been appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to fill the seat when Sessions left, and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who won the runoff but lost the general election to Jones.
Brooks’ recent notoriety makes him probably the best known among the field of likely entrants. Among the other possibilities:
Other possible candidates include:
- Katie Boyd Britt, head of the Business Council of Alabama. Britt is Shelby’s former chief of staff and is widely considered to be a favorite of the senator. Outside of government, business and media circles, though, Britt’s name is barely recognized.
“I think it depends on whether or not Shelby wants to be involved in naming a successor,” Williamson said. “If he were to say something like, ‘I’m on my way out, but Katie would be the perfect replacement for me,’ that gives her a lot of credibility. … If Shelby were to really put some weight behind her name, then that would help her chances. And Kay Ivey showed that a woman can win at the statewide level.” Britt tweeted Monday: “Senator Shelby is truly Alabama’s greatest statesman, and we owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his service. It was an honor to work for him on behalf of AL families, and his leadership will be greatly missed.”
- John Merrill, Alabama’s secretary of state and one of the state’s few remaining practitioners of old-fashioned meet-and-greet, build-the-base politicking in the manner of George Wallace and Jim Folsom. Merrill has been building that base since well before he came to Montgomery. Merrill ran
for the Alabama House of Representatives as a Democrat in 2002 and lost, then ran again in 2010 as a Republican and won. “He has an existing contributor network,” Williamson said. “In a state like Alabama, there a lot of people who like to do things the old-fashioned way. Being able to put on the old-pol hat and really glad-hand with people, getting your name and face out in front is really valuable. … That contrasts with someone like [Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being really popular on Instagram and other social media outlets. I don’t think that’s going to work as well in a place like Alabama. He certainly seems ambitious, and that can go a very long way.”
- Gary Palmer, who represents Alabama’s 6th Congressional District, one of the most politically conservative districts in the nation. A self-described “nerd,” Palmer’s specialty is policymaking; he served as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, one of the top leadership positions in the GOP Caucus. Palmer’s decision to run for the Senate “probably will come down to whether or
not he thinks the Republicans will regain the House in 2022, which all the historical indicators suggest that indeed they will after the mid-term elections,” Williamson said. “If he’s in a place to garner a leadership position, then I imagine he might sit it out, especially if we’re looking at an extremely crowded field [for the Senate race]. But there’s a good chance the Republicans could regain the Senate as well, as Democrats have relatively underperformed for the last few cycles.”
Williamson said he thinks that a few other candidates might enter the fray just to get their names out in front of the public for later benefit. “I think there are people who would use the Senate race as kind of a signal booster than anything else, to plant that seed and grow their organization beyond their own district. If they win the seat, great. If not, at least they’re in a better position to win a different seat down the road,” he said.
As for the Democrats, no one has indicated any desire to take on a Republican nominee as of yet, especially with no statewide officeholders in the party. Jones lost his seat by 20 percentage points to Tuberville, and has made few public appearances since.