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Why the latest Senate Republican retirement announcement matters

As 2021 gets underway, the number of Senate Republicans calling it quits keeps growing.
Image: Sen. Richard, Shelby, R-Ala., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on Feb. 6, 2019.
Sen. Richard, Shelby, R-Ala., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on Feb. 6, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

As a rule, party leaders on Capitol Hill try to keep their retirements to a minimum, knowing that incumbents generally stand a better chance of winning re-election. As 2021 gets underway, however, the number of Senate Republicans calling it quits keeps growing.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Monday that he won't seek re-election next year, becoming the fourth GOP senator to announce plans to retire at the end of the current Congress.... He has been in Congress since 1979, first in the House for eight years and then in the Senate for more than three decades.

The Alabama Republican will turn 87 in the spring. Shelby added that he has every intention of serving the remainder of his term, which ends next year.

For those keeping score, he's the fourth incumbent GOP senator -- and counting -- to announce his retirement plans ahead of the 2022 midterms, following Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

Of course, those other three represent states where Democrats at least have a realistic chance at competing. Shelby's from Alabama, one of the nation's reddest red states.

Former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who narrowly won a 2017 special election before losing in a landslide last year, seems like the obvious candidate for his party, but Jones told Politico "he has no plans to run for Shelby's seat."

On the Republican side, the list of possible contenders is not short -- expect a giant field -- though Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) wasted little time in expressing his interest in the race. If his name sounds familiar, there's a good reason for that.

Standing before a crowd of thousands of MAGA-clad protesters on the National Mall on [Jan. 6], Representative Mo Brooks roared out a message that he said members of Congress who dared to accept President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s victory needed to hear. "Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass," said Mr. Brooks, Republican of Alabama. "Are you willing to do what it takes to fight for America? Louder! Will you fight for America?"

The deadly insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol followed soon after.

The next week, Alabama Gov Kay Ivey (R) told reporters that Mo Brooks "does not speak for all Republicans, much less all Alabamians." The Republican governor suggested Brooks' constituents "hold him accountable at the ballot box."

Now, evidently, Brooks is nevertheless eyeing a promotion.

I won't pretend to know who'll excel in this contest, which won't begin in earnest for several months, but it's striking to consider Alabama's dramatic loss in clout on Capitol Hill. In the recent past, the state's voices in the Senate were Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, both of whom had considerable seniority and influence among Republicans.

This is changing: Sessions' seat is now held by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), a retired college football coach who isn't yet up to speed on basic details, and, in two years, Shelby's seat will be filled by a first-year rookie.