A 33-year-old Marine veteran in Alabama is trying to convince national conservative groups to help his campaign, hoping the state’s Republican Senate primary this year will be the next battleground between conservative outsiders and the Republican establishment.
That candidate, Jonathan McConnell of Birmingham, Ala., is running against Sen. Richard Shelby, a longtime incumbent lawmaker with a $19 million campaign war chest that has scared off challengers before.
Arguing its time to retire Shelby — who at 81 is nearly 50 years his senior — McConnell scored the endorsement Thursday of the political action committee of the conservative group Citizens United.
In an interview with The Daily Caller last week, McConnell said of the other conservative groups who in recent cycles have endorsed Republican Senate primary challengers: “We’re hoping to get their endorsements and get their involvement in the race because this a very winnable race.”
Some outside groups, like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund, have been known to spend a lot of money and do grassroots organizing for the candidates they support.
“They know that Shelby is beatable,” McConnell said. “They know that this race is not about money. It’s about the people who’re going to have the choice in the race.” (RELATED: Governor Of Florida Praises Donald Trump)
While still in law school, McConnell formed the private security company Meridian after the Maersk Alabama was famously hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. His company now defends merchant ships off the coast of Somalia.
Watching that hostage situation, which later inspired the movie “Captain Phillips,” unfold, McConnell said he “started making some phone calls … and ended up realizing there’s a huge gap and decided to start a company that would solve that problem.”
Speaking about the race against Shelby, McConnell said: “I think we need small business owners who’ve been out there in the trenches of capitalism. … Richard Shelby has received a government paycheck for 51 years.”
Shelby has long directed federal funds back to projects in Alabama, but McConnell questions some of that spending. “We have a crumbling infrastructure. There’s 6,000 bridges in the state of Alabama that need replacing … and yet we’re spending money on buildings with Richard Shelby’s name on it. And I have a huge issue with that.”
Asked which current GOP senators he admires, he listed Utah Sen. Mike Lee, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton — “obviously, because he”s a veteran” — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.
“I like Sessions,” McConnell said. “I don’t definitely have an issue with him.” But he added: “I wish he was as passionate about other issues as he is about immigration.”
McConnell argues the voters he has met would like to see Shelby challenged, pointing out that the senator hasn’t had a close race since 1992. And that was when Shelby was a Democrat, before switching parties in 1994.
Reached for this story, Shelby’s campaign pointed out endorsements he has received from the NRA and from Sessions.
“Senator Shelby has an unmatched, proven record of conservative leadership,” said Shelby spokeswoman Katie Boyd Britt. “The people of Alabama know Richard Shelby, and know that he has always stood up for them – against big bailouts for Wall Street banks, against Obamacare, against Common Core, and against illegal immigration.”
She added: “Facts are stubborn things, as the saying goes. If Senator Shelby’s opponents have actual policy differences with him, they should lay them out; but he’ll put his conservative voting record and accountability to the people of Alabama up against anyone.”
Shelby has been running campaign television ads in the state, including during Alabama’s playoff football game, reminding voters of his yearly visits to all 67 counties.
“He knows the back roads, the quickest routes,” the ad’s narrator says. “His home’s here. He’s here when we need him. Richard stands up for us, stands up to Obama every single day.”
Asked if he sees parallels between this race and the contentious 2014 Senate primary in Mississippi — where a conservative challenger nearly defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Thad Cochran — McConnell said in the interview: “Absolutely. We definitely see some parallels there.”
He also referenced the 2014 Virginia 7th Congressional District race, where an outsider named Dave Brat shockingly defeated House majority leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary. Cantor had outspent Brat nearly 40 to 1.
“I don’t have to raise $19 million dollars to beat Shelby,” he said.
But those who cover politics in the state still see McConnell as a long-shot.“McConnell at this point is kind of like a surfer out in the ocean, laying on his board and holding out hope a big wave will come in and carry him to shore,” said Cliff Sims, the publisher of Yellowhammer News.
“If you look at this race from the perspective of the outside groups in Washington, it’s going to be hard to justify going up against a senator who votes with you on pretty much every significant issue and has $19 million to spend on his re-elect,” Sims said. “That’s more money than all candidates and outside groups combined spent in the Cochran race in Mississippi.”