Shelby Faces Four Opponents in March 1 Primary – UPDATE

Shelby Faces Four Opponents in March 1 Primary – UPDATE

UPDATE, March 3, 2016:  Sen. Shelby won the primary.

ORIGINAL STORY, February 16, 2016: Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) is facing four Republican opponents in Alabama’s March 1 Senate primary.  The 81-year-old five-term Republican is expected to win, but in this anti-establishment political season, there are no sure bets.

In the space policy community, Shelby is best known for his unwavering support of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, and his clash with Sen. John McCain over the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V launch vehicle.  ULA builds its rockets in Decatur, AL.  McCain wants to limit the number of RD-180s ULA can obtain, while Shelby wants considerable flexibility.

The McCain-Shelby fireworks erupted publicly in December when Shelby, a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee working with one of the committee’s top Democrats, Dick Durbin (D-IL), undermined McCain’s efforts to limit to nine the additional number of RD-180s that ULA could obtain for national security launches.  The appropriations committee essentially lifted that limit.  McCain pulled no punches in lambasting the two for putting constituent interests ahead of national interests.  ULA is jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  Boeing is headquartered in Durbin’s state of Illinois.

The antagonism continued last week with McCain and Durbin publishing dueling commentaries in the Wall Street Journal (McCain’s as an op-ed on Monday, Durbin’s as a letter to the editor on Thursday), and McCain (or his designee) live-tweeting rejoinders to Shelby’s conversation with Air Force witnesses about RD-180s at a hearing on Wednesday.  The Air Force agrees with ULA on the need for the flexibility the appropriations act provides.  Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said on Wednesday that 18 are needed; last year the number was 14.   McCain’s FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act allows only nine.

Shelby is among the highest ranking Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairs the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA.  He is a steadfast supporter of SLS and widely viewed as the architect of the increased budgets SLS has received compared to the President’s request.  For the current fiscal year (FY2016), for example, Congress appropriated $2 billion for SLS, compared with the President’s request of $1.356 billion.

Alabama holds its Republican and Democratic primaries on March 1 along with a number of other states in what is billed as “Super Tuesday.”  While most of the attention will be focused on the presidential races, they are not the only ones of consequence.  

Shelby is facing four Republican primary opponents.  National Journal (NJ) reports that Shelby and the Republican party nationally, which is fighting to retain control of the Senate, are taking the race very seriously despite internal polls that show Shelby leading.  He needs a majority of votes to avoid a runoff and with the anti-establishment tenor of the presidential races, nothing can be taken for granted.   NJ quotes Republican consultant Brad Todd as saying that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz may “motivate a group of not your normal Alabama Republican primary voters” and Shelby and other incumbents need to be prepared for “having an electorate you weren’t counting on.”

Shelby’s opponents are Jonathan McConnell, 33, a Marine veteran; John Martin, 59, a former Army Ranger; Marcus Bowman, 42, a former legislative analyst and research consultant; and Shadrack McGill, 40, a former Alabama state senator. 

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