Shelby’s retirement tees off GOP scramble for Alabama Senate seat

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Longtime Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby’s (R) retirement is setting up what is expected to be a contentious Republican primary in 2022.

A number of names have already been floated for the seat, including Reps. Mo Brooks and Gary Palmer, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and Shelby’s former chief of staff Katie Boyd Britt. 

Additionally, former Alabama congressional candidate Jessica Taylor and former President Trump’s ambassador to Slovenia, Lynda Blanchard, have been suggested as possible contenders.

The six-term senator’s announcement on Monday comes just weeks after Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (R) also said that he would not seek another term. 

While the race for control of the Senate will be a nail-biter in 2022, with a 50-50 partisan split in the chamber and Vice President Harris able to cast tie-breaking votes, Alabama is likely to stay in Republican hands. Shelby’s seat remains “solid Republican,” according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. 

However, the race to fill the seat could give insight into the future of the Republican Party in a post-Trump world.

“Expect a very contentious primary, especially if Trump endorses,” said Alabama-based political consultant Brent Buchanan. “It’s likely whoever gets his endorsement will skyrocket to the top of the race and stay there pretty high above everyone else.”

Trump is a popular force in the ruby-red state, walking away with 62 percent of the vote in 2020. 

He threw his support behind former Auburn University football coach and now-Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) instead of his former attorney general, ex-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), in last year’s GOP Senate primary. The then-president frequently took to publicly berating Sessions for recusing himself from the federal investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference. 

Tuberville ended up sailing to victory in the GOP runoff, carrying 60 percent of the vote while Sessions trailed at 39 percent. 

“I definitely think [the candidates] will want to have support from the president, but I also think more importantly that they’re going to stand behind some of the same politics that the president has stood for,” said Jeff Vreeland, an Alabama-based Republican strategist.

The 2022 midterms will mark the halfway point in President Biden’s first term in office, a period where the party in control historically loses seats in Congress. Biden’s sweeping executive actions reversing Trump-era policies will likely play a role in galvanizing voters in the state. 

“I think it’s going to be very similar to what happened in 2016, where you saw a swath of new voters coming to the polls,” he said. “They’re going to be empowered to come to the polls and send a political outsider to D.C. to represent them.” 

The Senate election will be just one of the big races expected to take place during the midterms next year. In addition to congressional seats, 13 state executive offices will be up for reelection in Alabama including governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state. 

Shelby’s exit will begin a new era in the state’s politics. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) has not confirmed whether she will run for reelection in 2022. Her decision could ultimately impact the Republican field running to replace Shelby. 

“I think right now this is the first domino to drop,” Vreeland said. “I think there’s going to be more dominos falling over the course of the next four to six weeks.”

A number of potential contenders have already confirmed they are considering a run. 

Merrill told Politico on Monday that he is considering a bid and will likely announce his decision in April. 

Meanwhile, Brooks is publicly flirting with a Senate run, saying on Monday that he will run for election in 2022 for either the House or Senate. 

Brooks has come under intense scrutiny over the past month for challenging the 2020 election results and for remarks he made at the pro-Trump rally that took place just before the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. 

The congressman said on Monday that the backlash has helped boost his name recognition ahead of the midterms. 

“Quite frankly, the last 3 months of scurrilous & palpable false attacks on me by Socialist Democrats & their Fake News Media allies have been a wonderful blessing because they have sent my state-wide name I.D. and Republican Primary support through the roof,” Brooks said. 

One Republican operative told The Hill that Brooks’s close association with Trump would be an advantage going into the primary. 

“Mo would be the unquestioned Trump candidate in the Trumpiest of states — with high statewide name ID and over a million in cash to boot. What angle could another challenger even try with Alabama voters?” the operative said. 

Blanchard is one of the least-known names floated to replace Shelby, but she’s seen as a formidable contender. Blanchard and her husband are loyal GOP donors, giving $2.6 million to Republicans as of 2019, according to NBC News. She served as ambassador to Slovenia from 2019 to 2021. 

“I think she’s going to turn some heads just because of who she is,” Vreeland said. “She’s a political outsider.” 

Juliegrace Brufke and Scott Wong contributed. 

Tags Donald Trump Gary Palmer Jeff Sessions Joe Biden Kay Ivey Mo Brooks Richard Shelby Rob Portman

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