At an evening meeting at a PoFolks restaurant in this rural Alabama city, members of the county Republican club swapped gripes about the economy, immigration and the Obama administration as they munched on cornbread and sipped sweet tea from mason jars.
It is in this agricultural town, where a statue pays tribute to the boll weevil pest that prompted its shift from cotton to peanuts, where former Marine Jonathan McConnell makes a pitch to voters in his longshot bid to topple five-term incumbent Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby. It’s a pitch that’s familiar this election cycle: “If you think this country is heading in the right direction, will you raise your hand?” he asks.
Not a single hand goes up.
“That’s exactly why I’m running for U.S. Senate. This country is heading in the wrong direction,” McConnell, 33, said.
That voter frustration is what challengers have pinned their hopes on in a year that has given rise to outsider candidates such as bombastic businessman Donald Trump. To be sure, Shelby, 81, is a heavy favorite to win a sixth term. But in the year of an ornery voter mood, Shelby is leaving nothing to chance, spending millions on an advertising blitz – including spots that go negative on his most aggressive challenger.
He’s aware people are frustrated – “frustrated about America,” as he recently told a gathering in the tiny town of Arab, where he took questions on issues from the Islamic State to immigration to Social Security solvency.
“We tell ourselves we are the greatest country in the world, and I believe that. I grew up that way. But will we be in the future if we don’t protect our borders and we don’t know who is in our country, and we let people go on and push us around, in a sense, in the world?” Shelby said.
Shelby faces four challengers in the March 1 Republican primary, the first test this year of whether the anti-establishment surge has any impact on down-ballot incumbents.
“Most Republicans and Alabamians are not happy with the way that Obama is taking the country and they don’t see that we have fought hard enough to resist that. So any incumbent up there could get lumped in with the dissatisfaction that voters have with the performance in Washington,” former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead.
A titan of Alabama politics, Shelby was elected in 1986 as a Democrat during the party’s waning days of power in the Deep South, but he switched to the GOP in 1994. University buildings are named after him on the state’s major campuses, and Shelby is now on track to be the next chairman of the powerful appropriations committee.
While some of his challengers have zeroed in on his early days as a Democrat – including a 30-year-old vote against one of President Ronald Reagan’s appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court – he has taken votes that help insulate him from criticisms that he is not conservative enough.
This winter, he was instrumental in rewriting the appropriations bill – including stacking it with treats for Alabama by including provisions to benefit the Gulf fishing industry – and then voted against it in raising concerns about Syrian immigration. The Heritage Action for America scorecard – which ranks members of Congress based on how conservative they are considered by the group – gives Shelby a 99 percent rating, second only to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
Johnny Hart, the former mayor of Arab, a tiny town of 8,000, said there was no other choice but Shelby. “He feels the same as I do on immigration and other issues,” he said.
Hart said while people like to grumble about incumbents, the small Southern state will only benefit from having its senator at the top of the seniority food chain.
During a meeting of the tea party group Rainy Day Patriots at an indoor gun range in Hoover, members fired off gripes about Washington insiders. Shelby’s time in office was seen not as an asset, but a chief reason to vote against him.
“Since I was about 5, Shelby has been in office, so pretty much all my life. … What’s the old saying about babies and politicians? They both need to changed, and for the same reason,” said computer programmer Paul Stephenson of Pelham.
Going decades without serious opposition, he amassed $19 million in campaign money that he is beginning to unload in what could be his last race. Shelby, who says he is “taking nothing for granted,” is perhaps trying not to follow the cautionary path of six-term Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi who narrowly escaped being unseated by a tea party challenger in 2014 after an initially unenergetic campaign.
McConnell is pegging his longshot hopes on forcing Shelby into a runoff required by state law if no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the primary vote. Shelby, however, won a commanding 84 percent of the GOP primary vote six years ago.
McConnell, 33, was a preschooler when Shelby took his Senate seat. He is, without subtlety, making an issue of the 81-year-old Shelby’s age as he runs for another six-year term.
“At 81 years old, asking an 81-year-old to solve 2016 problems by someone who has been up there for 37 years is not going to happen,” McConnell said.
Shelby, though, brushes that aside: “I’m in good health. I feel good I’ve got a lot of energy and I believe I have a lot to offer: experience, resolve, courage. I think that will all come out (on Election Day).”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.