Mitch McCon­nell's Worst Night­mare

The Tea Party chal­lenges Alabama’s GOP sen­a­tor

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - POLITICS/POLICY - −Josh Eidel­son, with Greg Giroux

“For many of th­ese Repub­li­cans, the elec­tion▶…▶is pri­mary day”

Alabama Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Richard Shelby, who boasts a score of 99 per­cent from lead­ing con­ser­va­tive group Her­itage Ac­tion for Amer­ica, is a pil­lar of to­day’s GOP es­tab­lish­ment. First elected to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 1978 as a Demo­crat, Shelby moved to the Se­nate in 1987 and flipped par­ties af­ter the Repub­li­can rev­o­lu­tion of 1994. He’s now the chair­man of the Se­nate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee and one of his party’s top fundrais­ers.

This year, that pro­file may work against him. Shelby, 81, is fac­ing a chal­lenge from the right in his pri­mary, which takes place on March 1, along­side the state’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nat­ing con­test. Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell finds him­self in a quandary as he tries to hold on to the GOP’s four-seat Se­nate ad­van­tage: On the one hand, he can’t af­ford to alien­ate mod­er­ate, in­de­pen­dent vot­ers in swing states like Florida and New Hamp­shire, where Se­nate races are likely to be close; on the other, he’s bound to pro­tect in­cum­bent sen­a­tors from be­ing chal­lenged from the right, a con­cern that un­der­pins his de­ci­sion to block con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings for any Supreme Court nom­i­nee un­til af­ter the gen­eral elec­tion in Novem­ber. “Es­pe­cially in this at­mos­phere where there’s a lot of anti-es­tab­lish­ment feel­ing out there, any­thing can catch fire,” says con­sul­tant Ron Bon­jean, who worked with the Na­tional Repub­li­can Sen­a­to­rial Com­mit­tee for the 2014 midterms. “For many of th­ese Repub­li­cans, the elec­tion isn’t Elec­tion Day. The elec­tion is pri­mary day.”

Shelby’s chief an­tag­o­nist is a 33-yearold marine named Jonathan McCon­nell (no re­la­tion to the Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader). A first-time can­di­date who runs a mar­itime se­cu­rity firm he started while in law school at the Univer­sity of Alabama, McCon­nell is the son of a for­mer state GOP chair­man. Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent fed­eral fil­ings, he’s raised more than $766,000 for his bid and has about $92,000 on hand, far less than the $12.2 mil­lion Shelby has in the bank. McCon­nell says he’s faced up­hill bat­tles be­fore; as an un­der­grad­u­ate

at Auburn Univer­sity, he suc­ceeded in be­com­ing pres­i­dent of the stu­dent body even though he wasn’t part of the school’s pow­er­ful fra­ter­nity sys­tem. McCon­nell out­ma­neu­vered the Greek ma­chine by con­vinc­ing other con­stituen­cies that they were get­ting short­changed. “The stu­dent govern­ment as­so­ci­a­tion ben­e­fited the Greeks, so what we did is in­fu­ri­ate the band and ev­ery­one else on cam­pus,” McCon­nell says. “It’s very sim­i­lar to what we have now—we have a club, th­ese ca­reer politi­cians. It’s an elite so­ci­ety that take care of them­selves.”

On Feb. 18, McCon­nell and three other Repub­li­can can­di­dates gath­ered at a gun store in Hoover, a Birm­ing­ham sub­urb, for a de­bate. (Shelby was in­vited but de­clined to at­tend.) As the can­di­dates sat at the front of the room, the store’s owner, Gene Smith, walked in and told lo­cal TV news crews to turn off their cam­eras. Then Smith, a Shelby sup­porter, told the crowd he’d never given per­mis­sion for the Rainy Day Pa­tri­ots, a Tea Party group that reg­u­larly holds meet­ings at the store, to host a Se­nate de­bate. He said he was will­ing to let the event pro­ceed, sub­ject to one com­pro­mise: “Be­cause he’s not here to de­fend him­self, no neg­a­tive state­ments will be made about Sen­a­tor Shelby.” The crowd laughed at him.

McCon­nell’s cam­paign man­ager, Rick Ren­shaw, stood up at the back of the room and an­nounced he and his can­di­date were leav­ing. “Two of th­ese gen­tle­men put their lives in uni­form in de­fense of their coun­try, and they didn’t do it to have the First Amend­ment stepped all over,” Ren­shaw said. “We’re out of here.” McCon­nell stopped to de­liver a com­ment to re­porters: “This is the Nazi Gestapo that Richard Shelby rep­re­sents.” He re­peated the same line to vot­ers who came over to con­grat­u­late him. Smith, in a state­ment sent to a lo­cal political site, said, “I ex­pected there would be hat­ing go­ing on af­ter­wards and on­line. How­ever, if you were there, you know who around you acted out.”

Shelby’s tak­ing McCon­nell’s chal­lenge se­ri­ously. He con­trasts him­self with Mis­sis­sippi Sen­a­tor Thad Cochran, who won af­ter be­ing forced into a runoff in 2014, and with for­mer In­di­ana Sen­a­tor Richard Lu­gar, who lost his pri­mary in 2012 to Richard Mour­dock, a Tea Par­ty­backed con­ser­va­tive. (Mour­dock ul­ti­mately lost the seat to a Demo­crat, Joe Don­nelly.) “They may have been sur­prised by the un­rest and tur­moil,” Shelby says. “I plan not to be a tar­get.”

He’s al­ready spent about $9.2 mil­lion this cy­cle, more than in his last three cam­paigns com­bined. Much of the money paid for ads, in­clud­ing one re­mind­ing vot­ers that he’d been able to get a con­stituent’s son ap­proved for burial at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery in less than 15 min­utes. “Shelby is such an in­sti­tu­tion here,” says Richard Ford­ing, who chairs the Univer­sity of Alabama’s political sci­ence depart­ment. “He’s known for bring­ing a lot of projects to the state, a lot of fed­eral money.”

Shelby has also gone neg­a­tive. His cam­paign has cre­ated con­man­jon.com, a web­site tar­get­ing McCon­nell. “Jonathan McCon­nell would say and do any­thing to get to Wash­ing­ton,” the web­site says on its home page. Shelby says he shares the frus­tra­tion of pri­mary vot­ers who wanted the Repub­li­can­con­trolled Congress to undo more of Obama’s agenda: “I’ve tried to be an ad­vo­cate of their frus­tra­tion.” One ad says Shelby “stands up to Obama ev­ery sin­gle day.” The sen­a­tor says he won’t sup­port a Supreme Court nom­i­nee get­ting a Se­nate hear­ing be­fore a new pres­i­dent is elected. “I would op­pose any nom­i­nee that the pres­i­dent put up, be­cause it would tilt the court,” Shelby says. “It would change Amer­ica.”

McCon­nell’s cam­paign hap­pily takes credit for forc­ing Shelby to the right. “You’re not go­ing to come out here and say, ‘Obama’s the pres­i­dent, he de­serves to get his nom­i­nee through,’ ” Ren­shaw says. “He knows he’d be tossed out just for that.” McCon­nell won back­ing from the con­ser­va­tive ad­vo­cacy group Cit­i­zens United in Jan­uary. “What Jonathan McCon­nell is do­ing is a ser­vice for Amer­ica,” says David Bossie, its pres­i­dent. “In­cum­bent politi­cians who have cred­i­ble pri­mary chal­lengers will have to take that into con­sid­er­a­tion as they move for­ward on the Supreme Court—or don’t.”

McCon­nell says he thinks vot­ers’ en­thu­si­asm for pres­i­den­tial out­siders like Ted Cruz and Don­ald Trump will trickle down the bal­lot: “I doubt they’re go­ing to can­cel out their vote by vot­ing for Richard Shelby, the quin­tes­sen­tial politi­cian, quin­tes­sen­tial es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date.”

The bot­tom line Sen­a­tor Richard Shelby, fac­ing a 33-year-old Tea Party chal­lenger in the March 1 Alabama pri­mary, is veer­ing fur­ther to the right.

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