MADISON, Ala. — Suburban Huntsville isn't the most likely place for a GOP primary challenger to a longtime incumbent senator like Richard C. Shelby to gain traction. But with Donald Trump in town here Sunday, Jonathan McConnell had plenty of hands to shake.
McConnell — no relation to the Senate majority leader — is hoping that supporters of the real estate mogul who is the Republican front-runner in Alabama and elsewhere across the South, will vote for him down the ballot in another rebuke to national Republicans.
After all, he needs strong turnout from people disenchanted with Washington, like those likely to attend Trump rallies. Shelby, though, has worked aggressively to reinforce his conservative voting record and views.
But he conceded in an interview with Roll Call that he did not even know when he launched the long shot bid to upend Shelby that the presidential and Senate primaries would overlap.
"The great thing about it is it really has helped. I mean, people here are are just so glad they have a choice besides Richard Shelby," McConnell said, greeting dozens of Trump supporters in the parking lot of Madison City Schools Stadium. "I've had two people out of the 500 or a thousand, probably more than a thousand I've talked to thus far, that have said, 'No, I'm voting for Shelby.'"
"And the reason they work at Redstone Arsenal or something like that and they've told them, 'Hey, you know you've got to vote for Shelby,'" McConnell said.
Huntsville's the kind of place where having a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who could become chairman during his next term can make a difference. In addition to Redstone, the city has a large NASA presence, and the local chamber of commerce counts 302 aerospace and defense contractors among its membership.
"I think we're going to re-elect him, because he's brought a lot of money into the state," said Bob Mills of central Alabama, an 83-year old Merchant Marine and Navy veteran who served aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, and a self-identified socialist who said he might vote for Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., for president.
Driving up from Birmingham along I-65, the Shelby billboards are impossible to miss, and his TV commercials are running across the state, putting his $19 million campaign war chest to use in an effort to win the nomination outright on Tuesday. Shelby needs just more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff.
Shelby, who faces four challengers this year, told Roll Call last week he was optimistic about what would happen Tuesday, dismissing concerns about a larger-than-normal electorate with a deluge of Trump backers.
"I think we're going to do well," Shelby said. "We've always done well with a big turnout. All indications are good, so we'll see."
Endorsing Trump at his Alabama rally, Shelby's Senate colleague Sen. Jeff Sessions said that the presidential race was an opportunity for conservatives who have seen promises unanswered by the political establishment.
But in an interview last week, Sessions echoed the sentiment of the senior senator that Shelby was in good shape, telling Roll Call that despite the decades in Congress he hasn't seen the same kind of headwinds blowing against him that have plagued other senior lawmakers in recent cycles.
"Sen. Shelby has really campaigned hard. He's run a great campaign, and he has a lot of support in the state," Sessions said. "There's not the kind of dissatisfaction with his leadership that others have had to face, so I think he's going to be in good shape."
While Sessions endorsed Trump on Sunday, Shelby has steered clear of endorsements in the presidential contest, even as the field has narrowed, saying that he's very familiar with most of the remaining candidates, particularly Cruz and Rubio.
"I don't know Mr. Trump real well, but I've met him, and I've said any of them would be better than what we have," Shelby said.
When asked by Roll Call about his realistic expectations for Tuesday, McConnell quipped, "you had to throw in the realistically."
McConnell said that while he would like to score the upset of the year and win outright, he hopes that he can force a runoff election by keeping Shelby from winning 50 percent of the vote. And at that point, McConnell theorized, he would have outside money coming in. Polling has been rather scarce, though both sides have circulated internals favorable to their respective positions.
The former Marine said he had not talked to the Senate Conservatives Fund since October. That's a group that's been known for supporting Republicans working against incumbents.
"I've seen a lot of things in my life to be afraid of, and an 81-year old Richard Shelby is not one of them. This guy's a politician, and you know the sad thing is we give these guys too much credit. You know, politicians, all they do is talk," said McConnell, who is in his mid-thirties. "He's throwing out every trick he possibly can."
Roll Call has reported that Shelby's campaign has called McConnell "Con Man Jon" with a website that features the stylized "O" from President Barack Obama's campaign logo.
"That's why good people stay out of politics," McConnell said. "I've either got a pretty thick skin or a really thick skull. It doesn't bother me."
The Alabama Senate contest itself is rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.
Contact Lesniewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at@neilslesniewski.
Shelby's Conservative Credentials Get Pre-Primary Boost
Challenger Says Richard Shelby Attacks Show He’s ‘Worried’
Presidential Primary Calendar Could Help Congressional Challengers
Could Trump, Cruz Victories Cause GOP Problems Down-Ballot?
Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.