Richard Shelby

Sen. Richard Shelby exits the Capitol Hill subway system en route to the Senate floor for a series of votes.

Listen closely to any of Sen. Richard Shelby's election rivals, and you'll hear plenty of talk about 2016 as an anti-establishment election year.

"He's not used his position to make the country better" said John Martin, a Dothan resident who's challenging Shelby for the Republican nomination. "We've fired coaches for less than that."

Said Marcus Bowman, a Mobile-area tech consultant and Uber driver who's also in the GOP race, "I believe the voters are massively frustrated, politically and economically,"

Said Democrat Charles Nana, "We're tired of the guy. What has he done for us?"

Come March 1, Alabama's primary election day, the state will find out whether that voter disaffection really exists and whether it's strong enough to unsettle one of the longest-sitting members of Congress. 

First elected to the Senate in 1986, Shelby holds powerful committee seats and started the year with $19 million in campaign money. Even after flooding the airwaves with pre-primary ads this month, Shelby likely has 10 times as much cash as all his opponents combined. 

Those opponents, four Republicans and two Democrats, are counting on a political earthquake to unseat him. Most of them, when asked about their chances for election, cite the example of Eric Cantor — the powerful House member toppled in a surprise primary challenge two years ago — and note that in the year of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, anything can happen.

An insurgency against Shelby is possible, said University of Alabama political scientist Nichole Bauer — though an election upheaval is more likely in some states than in others. 

"Alabama's political process just isn't very competitive," she said.

The presidential primaries bring a new element into this year's voting, she said, but unseating a Senate veteran with Shelby's name recognition would be tough for any candidate.

Track record

Shelby's three decades in the Senate are at the heart of the debate between the senator and his GOP challengers. Shelby says his long tenure in Congress is a plus.

"I've got a proven track record of conservative leadership," the senator said in a telephone interview. "My opponents, they're young and ambitious, but they have no track record."

Shelby rarely mentions those opponents in his campaign ads, which depict him as someone who "fights Obama every day." His campaign website touts relatively recent and sometimes symbolic votes, including his vote to defund Planned Parenthood, his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and his support for a balanced budget amendment.

Shelby's best-funded primary challenger said he doesn't disagree with the senator on many of the key issues, but he doubts Shelby's ability to make real change in Washington. 

"This country isn't better off than it was when Richard Shelby took office," said Jonathan McConnell.

McConnell, a Birmingham resident who founded a maritime security company, has amassed about $550,000 in campaign funds, much of which has been spent on TV ads.

McConnell points to the growth of the deficit and recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court -- many of whose members were confirmed while Shelby was in the Senate -- as a sign that Shelby's more interested in the status quo than in change. 

"He's beholden to the lobbyists," McConnell said. 

McConnell has challenged Shelby to a debate, an offer the senator turned down. In remarks to The Daily Home, Shelby was blunt about his reasons for not debating. 

"Why would you want to debate somebody who's unknown?" Shelby said. "If you do that, you're just creating a platform for other people.”

The right flank

Shelby rarely has to guard his right flank, drawing little primary opposition in past races. This year, in addition to McConnell, he faces, Bowman and Martin. 

Former state Sen. Shadrack McGill of Scottsboro also has qualified as a candidate with the state GOP but doesn't seem to have filed similar paperwork at the federal level. The Daily Home’s attempts to reach McGill were unsuccessful.

Martin, the former Army pilot, sees the long list of challengers as a sign that Shelby is showing weakness in the polls. 

"It's the Trump factor," Martin said, citing the anti-incumbent mood that, according to some political observers, is roiling the presidential races. 

"We haven't fixed the immigration issue in the last 30 years," Martin said. "It's the lethargy of incumbents."

Martin says he has few major policy disagreements with Shelby but wants to see more action in the Senate. 

"I'm just as conservative as Shelby, but I'll bring new energy," he said.

Bowman, the candidate from Daphne, takes a similar tack.

"I'm focused on being Richard-Shelby-plus," Bowman said. 

A former staffer for a D.C. research firm, Bowman said he has Capitol Hill experience that will allow him to talk to others in the Senate and get things done. 

"People don't want focus-group-tested, fancy little commercials," he said. 

Martin claims Shelby is near runoff territory, with opponents claiming enough of the vote to deny the senator a single sweep to the nomination. McConnell, meanwhile, has circulated results from his campaign’s own polls, showing Shelby as low as 55 percent.

Still, Shelby is 30 points ahead of McConnell, his nearest competitor, in that poll. And 16 percent were undecided. 

There's little independent polling in the race. Shelby claims his polls show him doing just fine with conservatives who consider themselves outsiders.

"I poll pretty well with the anti-establishment crowd," he said.

Rich and poor

The Democrats in the race are also hoping for an anti-incumbent surge, but a different kind of surge, later in the year. 

"Everything Richard Shelby is trying to do would make the rich richer and the poor poorer," said Ron Crumpton, a Pelham resident who's seeking the Democratic nomination. "People are tired of it."

Crumpton, a disabled former landscaper, is best known in Montgomery as an advocate for the legalization of medical marijuana. Nearly two years ago, he shifted gears and began working on a Senate campaign. 

On March 1, he'll go up against Nana, a Birmingham resident who immigrated from Cameroon with $428 in his pocket and now works as a mechanical engineer and business strategist. 

Both Democrats are advocates of a $15 minimum wage, something they say is needed to combat income inequality. 

"The minimum wage is at a historic low," Crumpton said. "But if you look at corporate profits, they're higher than they've been in years."

Asked how they differ, Nana said he doesn't support any form of marijuana legalization. (In an earlier interview with TV station WVTM, Nana said he would support "limited use" of medical marijuana.) Crumpton said he's been working on the campaign longer and has a more detailed plan. Both prefer to focus on what they see as Shelby's shortcomings.

"All he knows is that he doesn't like Obama," Nana said, referring to Shelby's television ads. "Someone please remind him that he's not running against Obama, he's running against Nana."

Nana cites underfunded schools, poverty in the Black Belt and an antiquated state constitution among his reasons for seeking the office. A U.S. senator could have more influence on some of those issues than a state-level official, he said.

"In the Senate, you can attract industry and bring jobs to the state," he said.

Both Democrats say they're not worried about Shelby's multi-million-dollar funding advantage. When voters are sufficiently frustrated with an incumbent, they claim, no amount of advertising will help. 

Shelby's less-monied primary opponents say they're counting on their social media campaigns to take off.

"I'm using social media to leverage my website," Bowman said. "I believe that I can get all the voters across the state to see my website."

Voters go to the polls March 1.