In so many ways, the 2016 cycle has been like no other, but Bloomberg Politics published an item today that should surprise even the most hardened observers.
The most striking example of a Republican targeting Wall Street is the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Richard Shelby of Alabama. Shelby, who’s being challenged by a Tea Party candidate, Jonathan McConnell, in the state’s March 1 primary, has already spent almost $3 million on TV ads – more than anyone else in Congress – many of them attacking Wall Street banks.
In fact, Shelby isn’t just running against the financial industry in general; he’s naming names, calling out specific institutions such as Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo in his anti-Wall Street advertising.
Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president for political advertising at Kantar Media, which tracks political ads, told Bloomberg Politics, “Calling out banks by name and logo is extremely rare for Republicans. It’s rare, period – even back in 2012, when we were just emerging from the recession, we saw a lot of ads slamming ‘Wall Street banks’ or ‘big banks.’ But few ads specified banks by name, and those tended to be Democratic ads. We’ve seen more Republican ads slamming individual banks by name in the past few weeks than we probably saw in all of 2012.”
And as unusual as this is on its face, let’s not brush past the punch line: Shelby is the far-right chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. The financial industry has been extremely generous towards the Alabama Republican, directing millions of dollars to his campaign coffers.
Consider just how amazing this dynamic is: a GOP senator pursues policies favorable to Wall Street; the finance industry contributes generously to his re-election campaign, the senator then uses the money to run commercials about his distaste for Wall Street and the big banks.
If this seems a bit twisted to you, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.
Of course, the broader takeaway is that Republicans are watching Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders do very well in their respective presidential races, and it’s occurring to GOP incumbents that economic populism and hostility towards Wall Street is a vote-getter.
In Shelby’s case, he’s not worried about Election Day in November – Alabama is one of the nation’s reddest states – so much as he’s worried about his even-further-to-the-right primary challenger.
In other words, the Senate incumbent believes the way to impress the Republican base in a Republican state is to run commercials pretending to be hostile towards the banking industry. Shelby is afraid of losing – in Alabama – so he’s pushing a message that makes him sound a bit like Bernie Sanders.
It’s the sort of detail that speaks volumes about public attitudes in 2016.