By Hastings Wyman –
US Sen. Richard Shelby (R), 81, is a 30-year veteran of the US Senate and is seeking to make that 36. He has amassed a war chest of some $19 million as of Sept. 30 and has already been on television. Shelby doesn’t rely on well-funded campaigns alone, however, and makes a point of visiting everyone of the state’s 67 counties every year. Although he is favored for reelection, he cannot rest on his laurels. He has four challengers in the March 1 Republican Primary, challengers motivated by a Tea Party-like aim to run to Shelby’s right, where there is not much room, and by the pent-up ambition of their relative youth.
If Shelby has a worry, it lies in the volatility of the Republican electorate during this unpredictable and unprecedented presidential campaign cycle. If Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and/or Ben Carson are riding high and on the primary ballot with the Senate race, it could produce an unusually high “turn the rascals out” mentality. Shelby is touting his conservative record, noting his Conservative Achievement Award from the American Conservative Union, his A+ from the National Rifle Association, and another A+ from an anti-illegal immigration group. He also benefits from his seniority, which included holding a hearing on President Obama’s gun control measures, which featured Shelby grilling Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Jonathan McConnell, 33, has the most political heft of Shelby’s four challengers. The son of former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Roger McConnell, he was president of student government at Auburn and then served as a captain in the US Marines in Iraq. Back in Alabama, he runs Meridian Global Consulting, a company that provides protection from pirates to ships. He has raised some $1 million, hardly a match for Shelby’s $19 million, but still significant. He has attacked Shelby for voting for the confirmation of Hillary Clinton as secretary of State and for not vigorously trying to reduce the national debt. McConnell has the backing of Citizens United as well as a group of 100 Marines he served with, and gets favorable coverage from Briebart News Network. Last week, McConnell challenged Shelby to debate, an offer which the heavily favored incumbent promptly declined.
McConnell has already had to overcome two campaign problems. In November, one of his primary opponents, John Martin, charged McDonnell asked him to quit the race, and “offered to pay me off and cover all my expenses,” a charge McDonnell kinda/sorta confirmed, though he denied it was a bribe. And more recently the Federal Election Commission (FEC) said that McConnell had failed to file a campaign registration form with the Commission. McConnell, however, claims the document was mailed in a timely fashion.
Marcus Bowman, 42, a newcomer to Alabama and its politics, has a master’s degree in public policy and an undergraduate degree in finance. He worked as a legislative analyst
in Washington and in Alabama, was chairman of the Young Republicans of Baldwin County (Mobile suburbs), Alabama’s largest county.
John Martin, another Iraq War veteran, is now a commercial pilot. This his second bid for public office. In 2008, he ran a poorly financed ($1,000 raised) congressional campaign.
Shadrack McGill, 35, is a businessman and former state senator and, as his name suggests, is expected to appeal to evangelical Republicans. He gained his 15 minutes of fame in 2013, when his wife complained on Facebook that women were trying to lure her husband, who is somewhat of a looker, into a scandal. He says that he will do in the US Senate what he did in the Alabama Senate, which was to fight “to preserve our Christian values and protect freedoms.”
Clayton Turner, deputy campaign manager for McConnell and chief of staff for the Young Republican Federation, says “the biggest indication” that Shelby has a fight on his hands is “the $6 million he spent on a TV buy” and his “buying up as many political consultants as he possibly can.” He also says that Shelby has rubber-stamped some Democratic appointments, including Ruth Bader Ginsberg for the Supreme Court, and that he fought President Reagan’s nomination of conservative Robert Bork for the high court in 1987.
A source close to Shelby’s campaign says that the crosstabs of polling done for the campaign show that the Senator “is doing fine among supporters of all of [the Republican presidential candidates] and in all demographics.” He also points out that “Shelby has seniority, and that matters,” pointing to Shelby’s hearing on the 2nd Amendment.
McConnell’s first TV spot cited some of Shelby’s votes, such as confirming Hillary Clinton for secretary of state, then concluded with, “It’s time to send in a Marine.” And in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser, McConnell made a veiled reference to Shelby’s age: “I want Alabama to have a young, energetic senator who is willing to fight on their behalf.”
McConnell, however, has not received support from the Senate Conservatives Fund, which in past years has supported GOP challengers to US Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and for now is staying out of the Alabama race.
In sum, Shelby is the favorite in the March 1 primary, but in this year of Trumps, Cruz’s and Carsons, he can’t take it for granted. Stay tuned.