On one level, the announcement by Alabama Republican senator Richard Shelby that he will retire in 2022 was a predictable nothing burger. At 86, he’s the third-oldest senator (behind Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley). He’s in his sixth full term in the upper chamber, having spent eight years in the House before that and eight years in the Alabama state senate before that (he was first elected to office just over half a century ago, in 1970, the year of George Wallace’s race-baiting comeback campaign for governor of the state). He has chaired four major Senate committees, including Appropriations, the one that probably extended his career by making him Alabama’s invaluable pork-procurer.
But his very seniority makes him a historic figure in a passive sort of way: He’s the last surviving Senate member of the tribe of party-switching southern Democrats who followed (more than they led) an exodus of white conservatives into the Republican Party, which has had the upper hand in most Deep South states of the former Confederacy. It began with Strom Thurmond, the former Dixiecrat presidential candidate who joined the GOP on the wave of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy, which carried five Deep South states. Other apostates who soon followed included Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Mills Godwin of Virginia, Claude Kirk of Florida, Bo Callaway of Georgia, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott of Mississippi, and John Connally of Texas.
But another, delayed wave of pols was slowly drifting into the GOP orbit to which Shelby belonged. Shortly after his election to the House, Shelby joined the band of so-called Boll Weevil Democrats (a southern answer to the moderate-to-liberal Gypsy Moth Republicans), who gave crucial help to Ronald Reagan in passing his epochal 1981 budget and tax-cut bills. The leading Boll Weevil was Texas House member Phil Gramm, who changed parties and was elected to the Senate in 1984; Gramm is eight years younger than Shelby but has been out of elected office since 2002. Shelby rose to the Senate two years after Gramm, but while he voted often with Republicans, he didn’t formally cross the aisle until the day after the 1994 elections, which swept the GOP into control of both houses of Congress. Shelby was essentially an Establishment pol who changed parties without much change to his ideology when the time seemed ripe, much like future Georgia governor Nathan Deal and future Louisiana governor Mike Foster, who flipped around the same time. You could even argue that Shelby was a trendsetter in his state, where Democrats held on to the state legislature until 2002. That’s also the year the current Alabama governor, Kay Ivey, became a Republican.
While a Democrat, Shelby occasionally did party-friendly things despite his ideology. He voted, for example, against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork (though before switching parties, he backed Clarence Thomas’s confirmation). And he shared the antipathy to strict austerity policies common to nearly all others on the Appropriations Committee.
Most of the likely aspirants to succeed Shelby will be Republicans, of course. There’s some talk of a comeback by former senator Doug Jones, a Democrat, though his 20-point loss to Tommy Tuberville last year doesn’t bode well for his or any other Democrat’s chances. An early list of Republican possibilities from AL.com includes Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth, Secretary of State John Merrill, Attorney General Steve Marshall, and longtime Shelby staffer Katie Boyd Britt. But the name to watch among aficionados of good old-fashioned Alabama extremism is Representative Mo Brooks, who was the first congressional sponsor of Donald Trump’s effort to turn the routine counting of electoral votes into an attempted coup and gave a fiery speech to the January 6 mob before Trump’s impeachable appearance. Brooks, who loves to claim that Adolph Hitler was actually a model leftist, would form quite the Senate couple with Tuberville — a sort of Trumpy Dumb and Dumber. Neither is likely to exert the kind of Washington influence Richard Shelby amassed over so many years.