MONTGOMERY, Ala. – U.S. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the Senate’s fourth most senior member and a force in Alabama and national politics for more than four decades, announced Monday that he will not seek a seventh term in office.
The 86-year-old Republican has spent more than 40 years in Washington, serving first in the House and then the Senate. During his time in the chamber he had the rare accomplishment of chairing four major Senate committees and developed a reputation for using his clout and savvy to direct billions of dollars in projects back to his home state of Alabama.
Shelby is the fourth Senate Republican to announce his retirement, following Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina.
“For everything, there is a season,” Shelby said in a statement announcing he won't seek reelection. “I am grateful to the people of Alabama who have put their trust in me for more than forty years.”
His departure will leave a power void — and set the stage for a chaotic race to fill the seat at a time when the national Republican Party is deeply split on its future direction after former President Donald Trump's term in office. While Shelby has amassed a far right conservative voting record, the measured Republican senator has not embraced the bombastic populist style of some Republicans.
Shelby's official announcement that he would not run for reelection in 2022 came three days after The Associated Press reported that he had indicated to allies that he wouldn't run again.
“Serving in the U.S. Senate has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” the senator said in his statement. “I have done my best to address challenges and find ways to improve the day-to-day lives of all Americans. I have also focused on the economic challenges of Alabamians.”
The senator stressed that he will finish the two years remaining in his current term and remarked, “I have the vision and the energy to give it my all.”
Shelby was first elected as a conservative Democrat during the party’s waning days of power in the Deep South. In the House of Representatives he belonged to a caucus of southern conservatives known as the boll weevils.
Shelby was elected to the Senate in 1986 but switched to the GOP in 1994. He has spent the past two years as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, before Democrats gained control of the chamber.
“Few people have had a more consequential impact on our state than Senator Richard Shelby,” said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who added, “The people of Alabama owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Shelby, who served in the Senate longer than any Alabamian, was one of the last of the “old style-Southern politicians who saw as their main job as to steer as much of the federal budget to the state, instead of jumping on the hot-button issue of the day,” described political consultant David Mowery said.
Shelby developed a friendship with Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate appropriations committee. Leahy said Alabama was losing a “strong champion.”
“A fifth-generation Alabamian, Senator Shelby is a true statesmen, and a man of his word. Our country is in need of more leaders like him.”
In 2017, Shelby bucked his party when he announced that he could not support Republican Roy Moore, who faced sexual misconduct allegations, in the special election for Alabama’s other Senate seat. Shelby said he was instead writing in another Republican name.
And last month, he was the only Republican in Alabama’s congressional delegation who voted to accept the presidential election results certified by Arizona and Pennsylvania. The other Republicans objected to the certifications in support of Trump’s baseless claim that the election was stolen.
Former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley noted that during his decades in office, the senator helped changed the economic landscape of the state with his support for projects ranging from the port in Mobile to university buildings to the FBI campus and Space Command headquarters in Huntsville.
“It is very seldom that you have anyone that can maneuver through the minutia of Senate life and be as effective as he has been," Riley said.
Former Congressman Bradley Byrne said when he was first elected to Congress, he was thumbing through an appropriations bill and remarked to Shelby that the senator had done pretty well for the state.
“He just smiled and said, ‘I got everything I asked for.’ Then he got a very serious look on his face and said, ‘I can’t vote for it.’ I said why not and he said because it spends too much money.”
The open Senate seat is expected to bring a flood of candidates.
On the Republican side, possible candidates include Shelby's former chief of staff, Katie Boyd Britt, who now heads an influential business lobby and who would likely have the senator’s backing if she decided to enter the race. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill suspended his 2020 Senate campaign when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions jumped in the race. Rep. Mo Brooks and Lynda Blanchard, Trump's ambassador to Slovenia, are expected to eye the seat.
Brooks has faced criticism for his role in the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol. At a rally before the deadly riot, he told the crowd it was time for “taking down names and kicking ass,” but has maintained since that he was talking about fighting at the ballot box.
Merrill said last week that he would consider a run if Shelby did not run for reelection. Brooks said he will either run for reelection to his own seat or the Senate seat in 2022.