The Alabama Republican — known for his folksy demeanor and proclivity for meandering conversations with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol building — has proven incredibly successful at steering billions of dollars in resources to his home state. That includes more than $1 billion for a new FBI headquarters and a U.S. Space Command headquarters in Huntsville, in addition to billions of dollars for the state’s ports and harbors.
His tenure has also been a boon to the defense industrial base in Alabama as the top Republican on the spending subcommittee that oversees the Pentagon’s budget, directing funding for the production of the LCS and Expeditionary Fast Transport ships built in Mobile.
In a statement, Shelby said he has “focused on the economic challenges of Alabamians, increasing access to education and promoting facilities to improve the quality of schools. I have worked to enhance Alabama’s role in space exploration and the security of our nation. Further, I have supported the utilization of Alabama’s greatest resources, including its unparalleled river system and the Port of Mobile.“
Shelby boasts a close personal and working relationship with his Democratic counterpart on the Appropriations Committee, Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). In a statement, Leahy said Shelby is “a true statesmen, and a man of his word.“
“Over the years we traveled around the globe on a variety of key diplomatic missions, and we developed a friendship that we treasure,” Leahy said. “Although we have our political differences, we worked closely together on passing the annual Appropriations bills and negotiated the end of the longest government shutdown in United States history.“
First elected in 1986 as a Democrat, Shelby became a Republican immediately following the GOP’s sweep in the 1994 midterm elections. His retirement will open a Senate seat in a safely Republican state where now-GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville just ousted a Democratic incumbent, Doug Jones, by more than 20 percentage points last November.
Shelby’s retirement would also make Tuberville, a freshman, the most senior senator from a state that has long-benefited from having a top appropriator in place.
In 2017, Shelby faced fierce backlash from conservatives when he refused to back then-Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore in the state’s special election against Jones. Moore, a controversial former state judge who was facing allegations of child molestation, pushed a censure resolution and a robocall campaign targeting Shelby as a result.
“The state of Alabama deserves better“ than Moore, Shelby said at the time, adding that he didn’t vote for Jones but wrote in “a distinguished Republican name.”
Jones told POLITICO that he has no plans to run for Shelby’s seat.
“Few people have had the opportunity to make such a lasting impact on Alabama and the institution of the Senate like Richard has,” Jones said in a statement. “His leadership on the Appropriations Committee has brought back badly needed resources to a state that is better off for his long commitment to public service.“
The Alabama Republican’s announcement officially kicks off a mad scramble in the state for the primary to replace him.
Rep. Mo Brooks, who lost in the primary in the 2017 special election, confirmed in a statement that he’s considering a run.
Brooks, who finished third in that 2017 primary, has come under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks for his speech at the rally in Washington preceding the insurrection at the Capitol, prompting a resolution to censure him. Brooks has contended that the criticism has only served to elevate his name and support among GOP primary voters.
Other potential candidates include Katie Boyd Britt, a former chief of staff to Shelby who leads the business lobby in the state, Secretary of State John Merrill, who dropped out of the 2020 race, and Rep. Gary Palmer, who contemplated running last cycle but passed. Another possible hopeful is Lynda Blanchard, a business executive and President Donald Trump’s former ambassador to Slovenia.
Merrill confirmed that he‘s “strongly considering” running for Senate and said he expected an official decision sometime in the first two weeks of April.
“The person that needs to be the next United States senator from Alabama needs to be a proven conservative, effective leader,” Merrill told POLITICO.
Britt did not address a potential candidacy in her initial comment about Shelby’s retirement, but she praised the senator as “Alabama’s greatest statesman.”
Burgess Everett, Alex Isenstadt and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.