Richard C. Shelby, Alabama’s senior senator and the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, announced Monday he would not seek reelection next year — a decision that kick-starts the GOP primary in his home state and that will eventually lead to changes on the powerful spending panel.
Shelby’s departure will mark the end of a congressional career that began in 1979 when he joined the House as a Democrat. Over his more than four decades on Capitol Hill, Shelby has served on numerous committees, influenced countless pieces of legislation and chaired the Appropriations, Intelligence, Banking and Rules committees.
“Serving in the U.S. Senate has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said in a statement. “I have done my best to address challenges and find ways to improve the day-to-day lives of all Americans.”
He cited his efforts to improve school quality and access to education, enhance Alabama’s role in space exploration and support “the utilization of Alabama’s greatest resources, including its unparalleled river system and the Port of Mobile."
His decision to retire caps off months of speculation about whether the 86-year-old would seek a seventh Senate term.
Shelby hasn’t raised any money for his personal campaign account over the last four years, but he had nearly $9.8 million in his war chest left from prior campaigns that he could have used for another run. Bill Armistead, a former state GOP chairman, said Shelby told him six years ago that the 2016 campaign would be his last. And one GOP source said Shelby last week remarked to a fellow senator, “Twenty-three more months,” as the chamber voted for 15 hours overnight on budget resolution amendments.
After four terms in the House, Shelby was elected to the Senate in 1986, still as a Democrat. He was in his second term when he switched parties in 1994, officially becoming a Republican.
“I thought there was room in the Democratic Party for a conservative Southern Democrat such as myself,” Shelby said at the time. “But I can tell you there’s not.”
Crowded race ahead
Shelby’s exit will set off a crowded Republican primary in deep-red Alabama, but the GOP isn’t concerned a divisive primary could endanger the seat in the general election.
Alabama Republicans lost control of the state’s other Senate seat in 2017, when Democrat Doug Jones narrowly won a special election over controversial former judge Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual assault and making inappropriate advances. Running for a full term last year, Jones lost to former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville by 20 points.
“I think it will be a very vigorous campaign. … When it’s all said and done, the party will unite around the nominee unlike what happened last time,” said Armistead, who chaired Moore’s campaign in 2017. Shelby publicly said at the time that he would not vote for Moore.
Business Council of Alabama CEO Katie Boyd Britt, who was previously Shelby’s chief of staff, could run for the open seat, and likely would have the senator’s backing, multiple GOP strategists said.
Republicans in Alabama also expect Rep. Mo Brooks, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2017 Senate special election, to jump into the GOP primary. Brooks has been an outspoken defender of former President Donald Trump and led the effort in the House to challenge the Electoral College certification.
Brooks confirmed via text message Monday afternoon that he is weighing a run for Senate. “I am running for election in 2022, either for my House seat or for the Alabama Senate race,” he wrote.
More than three dozen House Democrats have introduced a resolution to censure Brooks for comments he made at a rally before the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, but he said the notoriety has an upside.
“Quite frankly, the last three months of scurrilous and palpably false attacks on me by Socialist Democrats and their Fake News Media allies have been a wonderful blessing in disguise because they have sent my statewide name I.D. and Republican primary support through the roof,” Brooks wrote.
Other potential candidates include Alabama’s term-limited secretary of state, John Merrill, who made a failed Senate run in 2020; Lynda Blanchard, a businesswoman and Trump donor who was his ambassador to Slovenia; and Jessica Taylor, who unsuccessfully ran for an open House seat last cycle.
Brent Buchanan, a GOP consultant in the state, did not expect Reps. Robert B. Aderholt or Mike D. Rogers to run for Senate since they could be looking at committee chairmanships if Republicans take control of the House in 2022.
“I am perfectly content serving Alabama through my current work in the House and I don’t have any current plans to run for an open Senate seat,” Adherholt said in a statement Monday, noting he has a senior role on the House Appropriations Committee.
Leaving a void
“Although I plan to retire, I am not leaving today,” Shelby said. “I have two good years remaining to continue my work in Washington. I have the vision and the energy to give it my all.”
Shelby’s retirement will leave several holes in the Senate GOP Conference, including the role of top Republican on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Shelby first joined the panel in 1995 and has served as the top Republican on six subcommittees, including Defense; Commerce-Justice-Science; Transportation-Treasury; Transportation; Treasury, Postal Service and General Government; and Labor-HHS-Education.
Maine’s Susan Collins is next in line for the position of top Republican based on seniority. With her current term running through 2026, the 68-year-old would have at least four years in the role.
Collins would be the first Republican woman to hold the position of ranking member or chair on the Appropriations Committee in the Senate. Texas Rep. Kay Granger claimed that role for House Republicans more than two years ago. And former Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, became the first chairwoman of Senate Appropriations in 2012.
Collins would also likely take over the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, the same way Shelby did when he became the top Republican on the full panel.
Collins might have a new Democrat to work alongside should she step up to the role of top Republican.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy is also up for reelection in 2022, but the 80-year-old Vermont Democrat told reporters in late January that he wouldn’t be making any reelection decisions until much later this year.
“I never made up my mind until November or December the year before, and I’m not going to now,” he said on Jan. 27. “Usually, when we start skiing and snowshoeing, then we talk about it.”
Shelby and Leahy are well known for their decadeslong friendship, having regularly spoken to reporters together on spending issues, despite holding significantly different political views.
Lost Alabama influence
Shelby’s exit also means Alabama will lose the seniority and power that comes with decades in Congress. His perch on Appropriations allowed him to direct federal funds back home.
“It’s going to cost Alabama a trillion dollars to not have Shelby in the U.S. Senate,” said Buchanan, the GOP consultant, who added that the senator’s impact on the state spanned multiple industries, from massive amounts of defense spending to grants for local fire departments.
“He is the best thing that’s ever happened to Alabama,” Buchanan said. “That and Nick Saban, and I’m an Auburn fan.”