Richard Shelby’s decision to retire after nearly 35 years in the Senate will kick off a competitive race to replace him in the deep red state.
(CN) — After a career spanning more than four decades in Washington, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama announced Monday he will not seek reelection in 2022.
“For everything, there is a season,” the Republican said in a statement.
At 86 years old, Shelby is one of the oldest members of the Senate. During his 42-year career on Capitol Hill, he chaired the appropriations, banking, intelligence and rules committees and worked to increase access to education, according to his statement. He also helped his home state play a bigger role in the nation’s defense and space program.
“Although I plan to retire, I am not leaving today. I have two good years remaining to continue my work in Washington. I have the vision and the energy to give it my all,” Shelby said.
Before joining the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979, Shelby worked as a city prosecutor in Tuscaloosa, a U.S. magistrate judge in the Northern District of Alabama, a state prosecutor and a state senator.
Shelby was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986. In the beginning, he ran as a Democrat before switching party affiliations in 1994.
Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan said in a statement Shelby will leave a legacy that stretches across the state: from widening and deepening the Port of Mobile that sits along the Gulf of Mexico to steering the U.S. Space Command to possibly set its headquarters down in the northern Alabama city of Huntsville.
“Senator Shelby … used his key Senate committees to expand and protect our manufacturing sectors and agriculture industries, and prioritized the deep military footprint that is in our state,” Lathan said.
In the deeply Republican state that overwhelmingly supported then-President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, the question is who may run in the GOP primary.
Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks is seen as one possible contender. John Merrill, who faces a term limit as Alabama’s secretary of state, ran for U.S. Senate in 2020. And Katie Boyd Britt, president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama and former chief of staff for Shelby, is another Alabamian who is considered a possible candidate.
Shelby’s announcement comes after the last few years have seen tumultuous Senate races in Alabama.
Democrat Doug Jones won in an upset in 2017 after Republican candidate Roy Moore faced scandal alleging sexual impropriety and Tommy Tuberville, former football coach of Auburn University, handily beat Jeff Sessions, Alabama’s former senator, during the 2020 primary for the same seat. Tuberville beat Jones in the general election.
Throughout those election cycles, Alabama GOP strategist Angi Stalnaker said Shelby quietly served as “our safety net through that drama.”
The quest to fill Shelby’s seat, Stalnaker said, will be yet another critical election that Republicans should approach carefully should party disunity give Democrats an opportunity to stage an upset like what happened in Alabama in 2017 and in Georgia last month.
“I think that Republicans will come to realize that whether or not you’re a Trump Republican or a more traditional Republican, as some would say, that we all have the same interests, which is to put a reliable, intelligent, thoughtful conservative in the U.S. Senate,” Stalnaker said. “If we start fighting amongst ourselves, we’re going to see what happened before.”
For his part, Jones called Shelby “a true statesman” in a statement responding to the news of Shelby’s retirement. Jones added that during the three years they spent together as Alabama’s senators, he appreciated the senior senator’s friendship, counsel and, occasionally, a bourbon after hours.
“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. “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.”