Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby’s future

All eyes are on Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the 86-year-old veteran lawmaker who some think will retire rather than run for another full six-year term.

Talk in Alabama political circles is also focused on who might succeed Shelby, with sources saying he has expressed interest to various people about his intent to retire and his desire to have Katie Britt, his former chief of staff, succeed him.

“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,” said one Alabama Republican source familiar with the matter.

When asked about any reelection plans for 2022, Shelby told The Hill on Tuesday that he would address the issue in the coming weeks.

“I’m going to make a public announcement on that in January,” the senator said.

When asked about whether he would want Britt to follow in his footsteps, Shelby said she has to decide for herself if she wants to run.

“She’d make a good senator,” he added, noting that she is “talented.”

In a subsequent statement to The Hill, Britt said it’s too early to discuss her political future or Shelby’s.

“Please know that I am incredibly honored and humbled to even be included in such a conversation. But Richard Shelby has more than earned the right to determine and let everyone know what his future holds. I have too much respect for him to engage in any such conversation prematurely,” Britt said.

Sources say Shelby, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, may be waiting to see whether Republicans can hold on to their majority in the Senate to determine whether he retires before his current term ends in January 2023.

If Republicans win both runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5 and keep control of the Senate, Shelby would retain his gavel and likely finish out the remainder of his term, sources said. But if the upper chamber flips, some said Shelby could retire as early next year.

There is also a groundswell of people encouraging Shelby to seek reelection so that he can finish his six-year term as Appropriations chairman, which could sway him to seek a seventh term in office.

And if he ultimately doesn’t, sources named several other possible contenders for the seat including Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, Alabama Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth, as well as GOP Reps. Gary Palmer (Ala.) and Robert Aderholt (Ala.).

Shelby began his stint as Appropriations chairman in 2018 after Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) retired because of ill health. If Shelby runs in 2022, he would have an additional two years to serve atop what is considered one of the most powerful Senate committees, wielding substantial influence over legislation that determines government funding.

Sources said that if he were to retire before 2022, he may encourage Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to name Britt as his successor, similar to how Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) tapped Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) to fill the seat held by Sen. Johnny Isakson, who stepped down in 2019 for health reasons.

But GOP sources, who disagreed with the idea of an early retirement, also noted that Ivey is the decisionmaker in that scenario, not Shelby.

Britt in a statement dismissed that Shelby would retire early.

“That is simply not true.  Anyone who thinks that Richard Shelby will leave one day sooner than the last day of his term hasn’t met him. Senator Shelby is a fighter and has never walked away from a challenge a day in his life,” said Britt.

Still, if Britt were ultimately appointed, sources noted that Alabama voters have a history of ousting hand-selected appointees and instead choosing someone else in the next election. They pointed to Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), who filled the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions once confirmed as President Trump’s attorney general, but lost the 2017 Republican primary runoff to former state judge Roy Moore.

If Shelby finishes out his term and decides to retire, sources expect he may not only throw his weight behind Britt, but also possibly find ways to direct some of the money left in his campaign account to the candidate of his choice. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Shelby had more than $9.7 million on hand as of late September.

An open Senate seat in 2022 would be expected to draw a large pool of candidates.

Republicans in Washington have a strong desire to boost the number of GOP women in the Senate. Republicans have just eight women in the Senate, half as many as Democrats.

Some Alabama Republicans noted that women generally face hurdles securing federal positions in Alabama, citing a tendency among state voters to favor male politicians. And while women have served in top posts, those accomplishments have at times been preceded by special circumstances.

Ivey, who first served as Alabama’s lieutenant governor, became the state’s second female governor upon the resignation of Robert Bentley, who was facing an impeachment probe in part because of a relationship with a female staffer. Ivey was later elected to a full term in 2018.

Still, others highlighted that Britt, 38, has strong ties to the state.

Britt, who attended the University of Alabama for college and then law school, has held various jobs including press secretary for Shelby, special assistant to then-University of Alabama President Robert Witt, a corporate lawyer and Shelby’s chief of staff.

She also served as president of the Student Government Association, which plays an influential role in state politics.

After leaving Capitol Hill in 2019, Britt became the first female president of the Business Council of Alabama.

Updated: 3:07 p.m.

Tags Brian Kemp Donald Trump Gary Palmer Jeff Sessions Johnny Isakson Kay Ivey Kelly Loeffler Luther Strange Richard Shelby Roy Moore Thad Cochran

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