While much of the nation’s attention continues to be fixated on the race for the White House, a number of congressional challengers across the country are quietly staging a political upheaval of their own. One such race is Alabama’s upcoming primary on March 1, where Senate Banking Chair Richard Shelby is facing what’s being called “his first serious challenge in years” from businessman Jonathan McConnell.
In the first several months of his campaign, McConnell raised an impressive $587,000. What has inspired him to invest so much time and resources into what, on paper, should be a long-shot race?
I spoke with Jonathan recently after he signed the Coalition to Reduce Spending’s Reject the Debt pledge, a commitment to only vote for spending that is offset and budgets with a path to balance.
“Our federal spending and national debt have grown so out of control that they are driving our future generations into bankruptcy,” he said, “The status quo of big spending career politicians is not acceptable, and it is in the hands of fiscal conservatives across the country to elect leaders who will make the cuts they promise.”
McConnell is not alone in his conviction that something has to change.
Marcus Bowman, also primarying Shelby and a pledge signer, told me that we have “to start serious conversations about actual spending cuts.” He said his plan is “from day 1 in Washington to start getting folks together talking about where we can agree to cut spending.”
“Everything,” he added, “has to be on the table.”
McConnell and Bowman are right.
With the national debt now over $19 trillion, there’s little end in sight as massive entitlement liabilities become more apparent. It’s obvious the country has a spending problem, and voters are right to be uneasy with an entrenched establishment that seems to favor more spending by both parties.
Importantly, though, Alabama is a runoff state, and a strong challenger can push even a longtime incumbent into an April showdown. We’ve seen this phenomenon before, when an upstart challenger pushed the establishment favorite into a runoff — Ted Cruz then beat David Dewhurst to become the Junior Senator for the State of Texas.
Perhaps this possibility is why Senator Shelby has announced plans to spend $6 million over the course of the race.
The five-term incumbent regularly touts his dedication to cutting spending, such as his vote against October’s debt limit increase, saying that “this cycle of debt accumulation is unsustainable and will only lead to placing more debt on the backs of future generations.”
In December, he also voted against the $1.1 trillion spending deal, citing primarily what he said were insufficient protections against potentially dangerous refugees. Critics charge, though, that his opposition came only after inserting millions in pet projects into the package. Fiscal conservatives can and will disagree on whether or not such critiques are fair.
Ultimately, it will be up to voters in Alabama to decide whether Shelby is fighting against the soaring national debt, or whether he is part of the problem. What is clear, though, is that voters will have an opportunity to voice their discontent with real alternatives on the ballot for the first time in years.
Jonathan Bydlak is the founder and president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, a national advocacy organization dedicated to cutting spending and debt.