It’s been nearly 20 years since a debate was held for a contested U.S. Senate seat in Alabama — something candidate Jonathan McConnell hopes to change.

Last week, McConnell challenged incumbent Sen. Richard Shelby to a series of policy debates.

“To further educate Alabama about the substantive differences between the two of us, I invite you to participate in a series of televised policy debates across the state of Alabama,” McConnell wrote in a letter to Shelby.

McConnell is one of four challengers for Shelby’s seat. Also appearing on the March 1 GOP primary ballot will be Iraq War veteran and commercial airline pilot John Martin, former State Sen. Shadrack McGill and former Baldwin County Young Republicans chairman Marcus Bowman.

But of the four, McConnell seems to have the best shot at unseating the 30-year veteran.

Shelby has declined McConnell’s debate challenge but may need to reconsider. For now, he is armed with a war chest of $19 million, so there’s little upside in him even acknowledging his challengers, much less participating in a televised debate.

Shelby’s re-election campaign is instead operating with a strategy of saturating the airwaves and countryside with campaign ads and signs.

That might be enough for Shelby to hold off his challengers — all of whom will probably benefit from the volatility of the Republican presidential primary, which this election cycle includes Donald Trump.
 
It would stand to reason that Trump supporters — or supporters of any of the upstart candidates like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — who show up to vote in Alabama’s Republican Primary en masse could put the long-time establishment GOP incumbent Senate seat in jeopardy.

It’s been a really long time since a Senate seat was seriously contested in the state and that was in 1996, when then-Alabama Attorney General Jeff Sessions faced then-State Sen. Roger Bedford.

That election came on the heels of the Republican takeover of Congress led by Newt Gingrich. At the time, the takeover saw many Southern Democrats, including Richard Shelby, shift their allegiance to the Republican party. At the top of the ticket was the re-election bid of then-President Bill Clinton, an unpopular figure in Alabama, who was facing off against former Republican Sen. Bob Dole.

In that election, Bedford attempted to frame Sessions as a member of the Republican establishment elite. In interviews with reporters, he referred to Sessions by his full legal name, “Jeffrey Beauregard.”

“It’s shorthand for ‘Jacuzzi-soaking, Gucci-wearing, Grey Poupon-eating, champagne-toasting, liberal country-club Republican,’” Bedford said of “Jeffrey Beauregard.”

As it turned out, Sessions has been nothing of the sort in his 19 years in the U.S. Senate. Alabama’s junior senator sowed the early seeds of today’s growing populist movement in the GOP, as evidenced by Trump’s success.

There was a lot more mudslinging in that 1996 contest. Sessions ran ads calling Bedford “a Ted Kennedy clone.” Bedford retaliated with ads warning Sessions would attempt to wipe out Medicare and Social Security entitlement spending.

Vice President Al Gore joined Bedford’s campaign in Alabama. Gore actually predicted on a campaign stop that Alabama would go for the Democrats in the 1996 election.

As it turned out, Alabama went for Bob Dole by a seven-point margin over Clinton and Sessions beat Bedford — also by seven points — to win the U.S. Senate seat he still holds today.

Twenty years later, Sessions is an unstoppable force in Alabama politics — to such an extent that Shelby has sought to tie himself to Sessions and his causes.

If Shelby’s challengers can somehow hold him to under 50 percent, Alabamians will get their first legitimately contested U.S. senatorial election since Sessions versus Bedford with a runoff election.

If that were to happen, things would begin to get really interesting.

The possibility of a low-turnout runoff election would result in Shelby continuing to bombard the airwaves and tap further into his campaign war chest. He would also lean heavily on Sessions, who endorsed Shelby early in the election cycle.

A runoff might also be what it would take for Shelby to participate in a televised debate.

Regardless of who one supports in this election, having a contested election will be healthy for Alabama politics. Shelby’s easy go at re-election in his last four election contests has allowed him to skate on some issues.

He’s not exactly a conservative’s conservative, with a lifetime rating of 77 from the American Conservative Union (Sessions holds a lifetime score of 94).

Until declaring his Tea Party identity, Shelby has been the typical Southern federal legislator — he’s able to bring federal spending home, has his name on bunch of buildings around the state and is sort of a kingmaker in the good ol’ boy network dominating state politics.

Now that he’s being challenged, some of this is coming to light, which is a good thing.

But don’t expect a debate in front of the state’s voters until Shelby’s challengers can seal the deal and push the contest to a runoff.