Opinion: This Is Who Could Replace Richard Shelby

Opinion: This Is Who Could Replace Richard Shelby

By Zach Hester, Reporterzach@southerntorch.com (Photo by Robert Sutton | Tuscaloosa News)

ALABAMA — On January 3, 2023, Alabama will experience something it hasn’t in more than four decades. It will be the first day since 1979 that we have not been represented by Richard Shelby in Washington. Regardless of your political affiliation, there’s one thing both Democrats and Republicans across this state must admit: it will be hard to fill the shoes left by this titan of Alabama politics.

With a plethora of GOP candidates (and likely one or two significant Democrats) expected to line up, it’s easy to get lost in the mix of names vying for the seat. Therefore, with way too much time on my hands and a love for making lists, here are the people I think might replace Shelby in the United States Senate.

• Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth: I think it’s a lot more likely that Ainsworth will succeed Ivey as Governor of Alabama, but after receiving the most votes of any candidate for constitutional office in 2018, it’s hard to overlook his ambition. It’s clear that he wants a higher office — but only time will tell if he wants to roll the dice in Montgomery or trek to D.C. 

• Businessman Jonathan McConnell: Veteran and businessman Jonathan McConnell attempted to oust Shelby in the Republican primary in 2016, but came up short. He did win almost 30% of the vote against Shelby back then but has not sought political office (to my knowledge) since then. Might he step back into the ring now that Shelby is leaving the spotlight?

• U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks: If Alabamians want someone who will pick up the Trump torch and carry it into higher office, they shouldn’t look much further than Mo Brooks. His recent positions, namely challenging the 2020 election results, may have resonated with core members of the Trumpist wing of the Republican party, but in his past Senate run, he failed to chart against then-Senator Luther Strange and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. Still, Trump remains popular in Alabama, and Brooks has certainly situated himself as the leader of the former President’s message statewide.

• Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox: Maddox, who has served as Tuscaloosa’s Mayor since 2005, was the perfect statewide candidate for Democrats in 2018 — it just turned out to be a horrific year for anyone without an R by their name in the State of Alabama. Maddox is currency running for his fifth term at the helm of Alabama’s Druid City so it’s unlikely he will look beyond his current race, though it’s clear he has bigger ambitions.

• Fmr. U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne: The former congressman from Alabama’s first congressional district came up short in 2020, coming in third place in the GOP primary behind former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and eventual winner, Senator Tommy Tuberville. Byrne was forced to give up his House seat to run, but now that he’s a free agent, he might use all the free time on his hands for another go at the Senate.

• Fmr. Ambassador Lynda Blanchard: An unknown you may want to make mention of is Trump’s former Ambassador to Slovenia, Lynda Blanchard. The businesswoman-turned-diplomat hails from the Heart of Dixie and is an Auburn alumna. Despite low name recognition, Blanchard may make her mark and she’s sure to play up her Trump connection if a campaign comes to fruition.

• House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels: Alabama has a strong bench of young Democrats rising up, and House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels is definitely among them. Daniels, the first Black and the youngest person to lead the House Democratic Caucus, hails from the vote-rich area of Huntsville and also works as an elementary school teacher. He certainly has a resume that’s hard to beat, but the political junkie in me is still fairly doubtful that a Democrat can win statewide in Alabama in a normal election year.

• Secretary of State John Merrill: I don’t care what political affiliation you hold, you cannot deny that John Merrill is the best retail politician in the State of Alabama. He visits each of the state’s 67 counties every year and somehow, if he’s met you once, he’ll remember you forever. He came up short in his Senate run last time, but expect him to shoot for a higher office in 2022 — especially since he’s term-limited.

• U.S. Rep Gary Palmer: Palmer almost ran in the 2020 election, and is a strong conservative voice for the 6th congressional district in the House. He also founded the conservative think tank, Alabama Family Alliance (which later became known as the Alabama Policy Institute), and only stepped down in 2014 to run for Congress. Could 2022 be his year?

• BCA President Katie Boyd Britt: This former Shelby chief of staff turned first female president of the Business Council of Alabama has the momentum, despite not yet being a household name. Britt would have the distinction of being the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama (two women have been appointed in the past, but not elected), and according to al.com’s assessment, there are “whispers that she’s already mobilizing her campaign” behind the scenes.

• State Rep. and Party Chairman Chris England: State Rep. Chris England is currently focused on rebuilding the Alabama Democratic Party from the ground up. He might not establish himself as the candidate, but it’s hard to believe with a vision like his (and what happened with Black voters mobilizing in Georgia) that he can’t procure a strong voice for the party statewide. If the GOP continues to split between its establishment and Trumpist factions, there might be an opening for England to enter the field.

• PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh: Twinkle means tough. We have established that through her television ads over her career as a member of the Public Service Commission, then through her 2018 campaign for Lieutenant Governor. Then in 2020, she earned more votes than any non-presidential candidate on the ballot. Will she mobilize those same voters to mount a serious campaign for Senate? My personal opinion is that she’d be formidable if she threw her hat in the ring.

Have I missed anyone? Former Rep. Martha Roby or state Sen. Trip Pittman? Or if you want a true wild card, it’s always smart to throw State Auditor Jim Ziegler into the mix.

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to meet Senator Shelby during a campaign event in 2016. While we may be on opposite sides of the political spectrum, I shook his hand and listened as he reminded us that “young people are the future.” 

I highly doubt someone with the same political views as me will fill Senator Shelby’s shoes, but regardless of who that person is, they better be up for the job. Let the games begin!

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