MONTGOMERY, Ala. – U.S. Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the Senate’s fourth most senior member, has told confidantes that he does not intend to run for reelection next year_— prompting some Republicans to urge the powerful, establishment politician to reconsider, even as potential replacements prepare to run for his seat.
The senator in recent weeks told one close Alabama ally that he was not planning on running in 2022 for what would be his seventh term, according to the ally, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The person said some in the state were still trying to get Shelby to change his mind out of concern about losing clout and worries that the senator might be replaced by a fringe candidate who would not be as effective.
Shelby spokeswoman Blair Taylor said Friday that the senator has not made a decision, “but there will likely be an announcement forthcoming in the next few weeks.”
“As I previously stated, the Senator has not made a decision or an announcement regarding whether or not he plans to run in 2022. Any speculation is just that, speculation,” Taylor wrote in an email Friday.
A titan of Alabama politics, the 86-year-old politician has spent 42 years in Washington, serving first in the House before the Senate. His stepping down would leave a power void for the region. It would also set off a free-for-all primary in a national party deeply divided between traditional Republicans like Shelby and those who model themselves on former President Donald Trump.
Shelby was elected to the Senate in 1986 as a conservative Democrat during the party’s waning days of power in the Deep South, but he switched to the GOP in 1994. He's spent the past two years as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, before Democrats gained control of the chamber. All along, he has used his influence to benefit the state's interests, particularly ports and military manufacturers. He played a key role in bringing an FBI campus and the newly announced Space Command to Huntsville.
“I don’t know anybody who knows how to wield power like Shelby does," said David Mowery, an Alabama-based political consultant.
“I would say that is his greatest accomplishment, to get money allocated to the state for many different projects,” former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said.
Alabama's political circles have long braced for a Shelby retirement. Armistead said the senator told him during his 2016 bid for reelection that it was his last campaign, but Armistead added the caveat that, “Things change.” Several months ago, Shelby told a group of business leaders at a private meeting that he would retire rather than run again, according to a person in attendance who was not authorized to discuss the event and also spoke on condition of anonymity.
A list of potential GOP replacements is waiting in the wings. Possible candidates include Shelby’s former chief of staff, Katie Boyd Britt, who now heads an influential business lobby and who would likely have the senator’s backing if she decided to enter the race. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who suspended his 2020 Senate campaign when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions jumped in the race, said he would consider a run. Rep. Mo Brooks is also expected to eye the seat. Brooks has faced criticism for his role in the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol. At a rally before the deadly riot, he told the crowd it was time for “taking down names and kicking ass,” but has maintained since that he was talking about fighting at the ballot box.
Brooks declined to comment. Britt did not immediately respond to a text message and a message on social media.
Shelby could use his power to give his preferred successor a boost. The senator has gone much of his career without serious opposition and has nearly $10 million in campaign money that he could throw toward his candidate of choice.
Still, the GOP primary could serve as a microcosm of the larger national tug of war over the direction of the Republican Party. While Shelby has amassed a conservative voting record, the measured Republican senator has not embraced the bombastic populist style of Trump and Trump-like candidates.
“I think it would be a total free-for-all,” said Mowery.
Shelby was one of the last of the “old style-Southern politicians who saw as their main job as to steer as much of the federal budget to the state, instead of jumping on the hot-button issue of the day," Mowery said. In 2017, Shelby bucked his party when he announced that he could not support Republican Roy Moore, who faced sexual misconduct allegations, in the special election for Alabama’s other Senate seat.
“You’ll have a lot of candidates that will try to be as loud or as dumb as possible because they think that is what plays to 50% or more of the Republican electorate — not realizing that’s not how you get things done in Washington," Mowery said.
Some prominent state figures are still hoping that Shelby will reconsider.
“I hope he will run again. I don’t think there is anyone who has meant more to the state of Alabama in that position in my lifetime,” former Gov. Bob Riley said.
This story has been edited to correct that Bill Armistead is the former chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.