Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), a titan of the Senate and a fixture in Washington for more than four decades, on Monday became the fourth Republican senator to announce that he will retire when his term ends in 2022.
Unlike the other three retiring GOP senators, Rob Portman (Ohio), Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) — whose vacancies create an opportunity for Democrats to flip those seats — Shelby represents a deep-red state, and the open seat in Alabama is expected to remain in Republican hands no matter who wins the GOP nomination.
Yet all four exiting senators are generally mainstream Republicans whose retirements could touch off pitched primary battles between the warring factions of today’s GOP.
The Senate is currently evenly divided at 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with Vice President Harris holding the tiebreaking vote. Democrats are desperate to capitalize on the retirements to shore up their ranks, even as Republicans seek to hold onto the seats and forage for other contests to regain a majority.
Three of the four states that will have open GOP Senate seats — Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — are considered presidential battlegrounds, guaranteeing that those races will be expensive, closely watched and fraught with political symbolism for both sides.
Whom Republican voters nominate in competitive intraparty primaries and how those candidates fare in the general election will be among the first indications of how strong Donald Trump’s hold remains on the party now that he’s out of office. Democrats are also eyeing another potential pickup in Wisconsin, a state President Biden won, where GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is facing a tough reelection bid.
Within hours of Shelby’s retirement announcement Monday, the Alabama race was already looking like a Republican free-for-all.
One possible candidate is Rep. Mo Brooks, a conservative Trump ally who participated in the Jan. 6 rally before the mob attack on the Capitol, urging participants to begin “taking down names and kicking ass.” He has refused to apologize, and two Democratic members of Congress have introduced a censure resolution against him.
In a statement Monday, Brooks said he was “running for election in 2022, either for my House seat or for the Alabama Senate seat.”
He said criticisms of his role in the Jan. 6 rally have “been a wonderful blessing because they have sent my state-wide name I.D. and Republican Primary support through the roof.”
Other more establishment candidates were also said to be looking at the race. David Mowery, a veteran Alabama political consultant, named Katie Boyd Britt, a former Shelby staffer who now heads the Business Council of Alabama; Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill; and several other members of Congress as potential candidates.
Republicans are favored to hold the Alabama seat — Trump won the state by nearly 30 points last year — yet primary contests pitting Trump loyalists against mainstream Republicans in the three other states could complicate the party’s efforts to win back the Senate.
While Trump won Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina in 2016, Pennsylvania flipped back to the Democratic camp in 2020. Both Ohio and Pennsylvania already have one Democratic senator.
Toomey and Portman each cited frustration with the intransigence of Washington as a reason for his departure. But Nathan Gonzales, a veteran elections analyst, cautioned not to read too much into a “Trump exodus.”
“It doesn’t look like the influence of Trump is waning in the neartime, but I’m still skeptical that he can maintain the same grip on the party that he has now for years into the future,” he said.
Gonzalez also noted that there’s little correlation between party retirements and how well a party does in the next election. In 2018, Republicans had three Senate retirements and Democrats had none, yet Republicans added to their majority, he said. In 2020, Republicans lost the majority but held their open seats, instead losing several incumbents.
Shelby, 86, who announced his retirement Monday — “for everything, there is a season,” he said in a statement — came to Washington in 1979 as a Democratic member of the House and won election to the Senate in 1986 as a Democrat. He switched parties to become a Republican in 1994.
The octogenarian exemplifies a dying breed of “old bull” lawmakers and committee chairmen who wield their power behind the scenes. His mastery of the inside game in Congress as he continually pushed his home state’s interests sometimes led to feuds with other lawmakers.
In 2016, the last time Shelby was on the ballot, establishment Republicans worried that an outsider in Trump’s mold could complicate the veteran lawmaker’s reelection.
But a massive financial arsenal and a proven record of directing money back to Alabama fended off a serious challenge.
“I think his legacy right now, truly, is immeasurable, and it will be revealed in hindsight no matter who is elected to succeed him,” Mowery said of Shelby. “I think that the No. 1 job of a senator is to get as much out of the budget as you can for your state, and he’s turned that into [an] art form.”
During Trump’s tenure, Shelby was generally a reliable supporter. But he broke with the president in 2017 when controversial GOP candidate Roy Moore was running in a special election in Alabama for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, who had been named Trump’s attorney general. Shelby went on national television to declare that the GOP could do better than Moore, who had been accused of making unwanted advances on teenagers in past years but was nonetheless endorsed by Trump.
Shelby’s outspoken opposition helped sink Moore’s candidacy, and Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones. Jones lost his bid for a full term in November to Tommy Tuberville (R), a former Auburn University football coach, and he said Monday that he doesn’t have plans to run again.
In Pennsylvania, the primary contests to replace Toomey will be intensely crowded on both sides. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), a liberal who has built a national brand as a giant, tattooed, bald politician who speaks his mind, got an early jump on the competition when he announced his candidacy for the Senate on Monday. He said he had received grass-roots donations from people in all 67 counties of Pennsylvania and all 50 states.
But neither the full range of candidates nor the political environment in which they will be running is fully known now, Senate experts cautioned.
“To make these races competitive depends on recruitment, and that process is just now beginning,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate expert at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Republicans also will be trying to pick off several senators they have deemed vulnerable, including two newly elected Democrats: Sens. Mark Kelly in Arizona and Raphael G. Warnock in Georgia, who are both finishing out the terms of their Republican predecessors and will have to run for full terms in 2022.
“We don’t know the national political landscape,” said Gonzales, the elections analyst. He noted that while the president’s party typically suffers in the midterms, it’s also possible that the country’s emergence from public health and economic crises would take “the edge off the desire for change.”