Richard Shelby was sworn in to the United States House of Representatives in 1979, eight years before he took his current place in the Senate. He was 44 years old at the time, and also a Democrat.
A lot has changed for the Birmingham native since then. Having switched to the Republican Party in 1994 after the GOP’s historic sweep of Congress, Shelby has assumed a great deal of influence in the Senate, now serving as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. It’s a position that has helped him steer federal money to the state since he took the gavel two years ago, and it’s a chairmanship that Shelby — along with many of his Republican friends back in Alabama — is keen to keep.
But time is not on his side. With two years remaining in his sixth and term, Shelby faces a huge decision: whether or not to run for re-election in 2022, when he would be 88 years old. Shelby would be almost certain to win again — he has $9.77 million sitting in his campaign account — and would then finish off the final two years of his chairmanship that is allowed under the Republican Senate Caucus term limits. If he then served out the full six years, he would be 94 at term’s end.
It’s a decision Shelby has said he will announce sometime in January, but that hasn’t kept operatives in Washington and Alabama from playing the speculation game. A story in November by The Hill newspaper, though, quoted an unnamed source in the state GOP as saying, “Shelby has indicated to a number of people and … he has even indicated to myself that he would not be seeking election for another term.”
Much of his decision may be based on the results of a pair of Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5, necessitated because no candidate in either the regular or special elections won more than 50% of the vote. If Democrats were to win both races, the Senate would be split 50-50 along party lines, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris holding the tiebreaking vote as Senate president. In that case, Shelby would lose his chairmanship, and perhaps lose interest in another term.
Alabama political newspaper columnist Steve Flowers, himself a former state legislator, is figuring Shelby will fill out this term and then bow out.
“My guess is that he would definitely serve out his term. Even though he’s 86 years old, he’s in excellent health,” Flowers said. “But my guess is also that he would not run for re-election in 2022. He would be 88 years old. … But I do think he will make an announcement early in the year that will allow the opportunity to have a full slate of candidates for an open seat. And it will have to start that early because the primary’s in June of 2022.”
Even at age 86, Shelby is just the third-oldest sitting senator; Diane Feinstein of California and Charles Grassley of Iowa are both 87. Shelby would have to serve two more full terms to break the record of the oldest senator ever, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who retired 29 days after his 100th birthday.
If Shelby retires, who will be the likely candidates to succeed him?
Here are some possibilities.
Katie Boyd Britt
Britt is well known within Alabama political circles, but not so much among the general public. Still, the president and CEO of the politically powerful Business Council of Alabama is known to be a favorite of Shelby as his possible replacement. Britt served as Shelby’s chief of staff before moving to the BCA two years ago. She’s an Enterprise native and wife of former Alabama Crimson Tide and New England Patriots football player Wesley Britt.
Katie Britt’s career follows a well-worn path for political figures in the state, which goes through the University of Alabama’s Student Government Association. She was its president in 2003-04, following in the footsteps of the late Senators John Sparkman and Lister Hill, state Auditor Jim Zeigler, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, the late U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert Vance Sr., and former Alabama Democratic Party chairman Bill Blount. Britt has never run for elected office outside of the SGA, however.
The article in The Hill said that many in the Alabama Republican apparatus believe Shelby would like her to be his successor, especially if he leaves the Senate before the end of a term. Should that happen, though, the decision on whom to appoint would fall to Gov. Kay Ivey. So far, Shelby has said only, to The Hill, that Katie Britt is “talented” and “she’d make a good senator.”
“That will be the biggest question mark in the race,” Flowers said. “If she gets in the race, we’ll know the reason she’s in there is that Shelby wants her to. Shelby has a lot of respect for her. She’s a very bright young lady, she would be a good candidate if he would raise the money for her. … But her problem is that she wouldn’t have any name recognition out in the state — zero. The only way she would be a viable candidate is to raise a large amount of money.”
Another former Alabama SGA president, though one of very few who won despite opposition from the secretive campus group known as “The Machine,” two-term Secretary of State Merrill has become well known through presiding over the state’s elections. He was widely in the public eye during the close 2017 Senate special election between former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. Merrill announced his 2020 candidacy for the Jones seat but withdrew well before the primary.
Flowers thinks Merrill may be the first person to throw his hat into the ring if Shelby retires.
“I think Merrill is the first one who comes to mind. I wouldn’t underestimate him. … He’s the only one who has a statewide organization like in the old days, like (George) Wallace had and like ‘Big Jim’ (Folsom) had,” Flowers said. “This guy’s a tireless worker. He knows everybody in every part of the state, knows them by first name and has them on his Rolodex and phone. He’ll outwork all of them, too.”
The five-term House representative from the 5th District in north Alabama, Brooks has made news recently for his ardent support of President Donald Trump’s attempt to block the presidential election results that gave former Vice President Joe Biden the certified victory. Brooks has announced plans to challenge the results of the Electoral College in the House next month, and this week he got backing from Sen.-elect Tommy Tuberville, who said he would join the challenge on the Senate side.
That threatened challenge has spread Brooks’ name recognition well beyond his House district and may set him up for a run at Shelby’s Senate seat. He may also benefit from backing by The Club for Growth, one of the biggest conservative think tanks in the country, which also contributes to candidates through its Club for Growth Action super-PAC. CFG was originally an opponent of Trump in the 2016 race, but did an about-face on Trump in 2020, becoming a supporter of the president. Brooks also falls in line with the organization’s insistence on helping only conservative candidates with records that support limited government.
Brooks has $1.11 million in his campaign war chest after easily winning reelection this year, according to his latest report to the Federal Elections Commission.
“I think he will run, and I think he may be the darling of The Club for Growth, as they have shown a propensity for playing in Alabama,” Flowers said of Brooks. “They might do it again if they have an open Senate seat in 2022, because they can. … If they get behind him (Brooks), then he becomes a player.”
Brooks ran in the 2017 special election to fill the Senate seat held by Luther Strange and previously by Jeff Sessions. He placed third behind Moore and Strange in the Republican primary.
Representing the 6th Congressional District, a deeply conservative area that stretches from Blount County southward to Chilton County (including most suburbs of Birmingham), Palmer is a self-described “policy geek.” He headed the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, for 24 years before running for the House seat in 2014, which he won in a tight six-way primary and a subsequent runoff. He’s faced virtually no opposition in the general elections for his subsequent terms.
Palmer’s demeanor isn’t always bright and sunny, meshing more with the “nerd” reputation he’s worn like a badge of honor. But in Washington he’s quickly risen in the GOP House leadership as the chair of the Republican Policy Committee — the fifth-highest position in the party hierarchy. And while he’s popular in his district, Palmer’s face and name may not be as well known in the edges of the state, and his campaign fund-raising abilities haven’t been tested much since his first election. He does have $427,707 in his campaign account, which would provide at least a head start in a primary race.
Flowers believes that much of the same support that could come behind Brooks could also just as easily come to Palmer, including that of The Club for Growth and its super-PAC.
“I think they are looking at Brooks or Gary Palmer. I don’t know that Palmer has the personality, but in this day and time you don’t really need that. It’s all about money and media. Brooks and Palmer are drawing from the same well. Whichever The Club for Growth taps will have an advantage. Brooks is probably going to run anyway, and that may preclude Palmer from running.”
Just elected for his 13th term in the House of Representatives, Aderholt won his 4th District seat at age 30 with a narrow victory over Democrat Robert Wilson, Jr., and he’s easily been re-elected ever since. Aderholt has been a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee for the last decade. It’s the House version of the Senate committee that Shelby chairs.
But Flowers doubts that Aderholt will jump into a Senate race precisely because of his seniority in the House and on the committee.
“He’s probably after the record for the longest tenure in the House from Alabama,” Flowers said. “He’s wise enough not to make that leap, for his sake and Alabama’s sake. He’s our only source of seniority after Shelby retires. … He would have far more influence for Alabama in the House on the (Appropriations) committee than he would in the Senate. He’s our best congressman by far, and our best hope in Washington.”
Appointed as attorney general in 2017 to replace Luther Strange, who had been picked by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to replace Jeff Sessions as senator, Marshall won re-election in 2018. He’s garnered attention for his vigorous defense of the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, which outlaws moving or renaming certain historic buildings and monuments; the law has been used to protect certain structures with ties to the Confederacy, such as the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Birmingham. That statue was first covered from public view, then removed after the city agreed to pay a $25,000 fine.
Flowers thinks Marshall will stay clear of any Senate race and instead aim for the governor’s office when Kay Ivey steps aside. “I don’t think he has the name ID that even the congressmen do. I think something like the governor’s race would be more likely,” Flowers said.
A three-term representative for the 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives, Byrne is probably one of the best-known Republicans in the state, and narrowly missed winning the governor’s race in 2010 — he led the GOP primary but lost to Robert Bentley in a runoff. Byrne also ran for Doug Jones’ Senate seat this year but finished third in the Republican primary behind the eventual winner, former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville, and Sessions, who held the seat for almost 20 years before resigning when Trump appointed him U.S. attorney general. Byrne gave up a re-election run for his House seat to go for the Senate.
But Byrne has other plans, and they don’t include running for the Senate in 2022. In an interview with John Sharp of al.com, Byrne said, “I don’t think so. You never say never, but it’s not what I’m thinking.” Instead, he told Sharp he wants to focus on the problem of poor primary healthcare options available for Blacks, and how that has caused them to suffer disproportionally from COVID-19.
Flowers thinks Byrne might have had a shot at Jones’ seat if there hadn’t been lots of opposition advertising against him, financed by The Club for Growth, which actively opposed Trump in his 2016 presidential election bid. The Club for Growth Action super-PAC spent $274,000 to run attack ads in January on Birmingham and Mobile television stations as well as the Fox News Channel, criticizing Byrne for, according to the ad, “… [a] record of sending American tax-dollars overseas and his support of special interests.” CFG supported Sessions in the primary.
Ironically, the same group later ran ads against Byrne that criticized him for calling for Trump to step down from the Republican nomination in 2016, a statement for which Byrne later apologized.
“He may have won the Republican primary if it hadn’t been for Club for Growth,” Flowers said.
Although Ainsworth is the second-highest-ranking elected official in state government, Flowers thinks the lieutenant governor will follow the same path as Marshall.
“He’s waiting to run for governor. He may even run against Kay Ivey. He’s made it clear he only wants one job, and that’s the governor. So he won’t be in the Senate race.”