Blunt’s retirement deals blow to McConnell inner circle

The surprise retirement of Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) means another member of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) inner circle is leaving the Senate as the GOP shifts more toward former President Trump’s brand of conservative populism.

Blunt’s announcement comes six week after another member of McConnell’s leadership team, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), said he wouldn’t be seeking reelection next year.

Two other McConnell allies — Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — are also leaving Congress at the end of 2022.

GOP strategists and aides say Blunt’s decision was likely influenced by Republicans unexpectedly losing their Senate majority in January.

“After we lost the presidential election and Democrats are running the show in Washington, it’s no surprise we’re going to see some retirements from senior Republicans who were used to having a lot more control,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former Senate leadership aide.

Strategists and aides also acknowledge the Republican Party is undergoing a turbulent transition as it grapples with what direction to take now that Trump is out of the White House.

Some GOP lawmakers are urging a return to the “big tent” politics of President Reagan, when the party embraced free trade and robust immigration, while others are modeling their rhetoric more after Trump’s populist style.

“The Republican Party right now is going through a major soul-searching in figuring out what direction it wants to go in,” Bonjean said.

He noted that at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, a gathering of the party’s most conservative grassroots activists, only 68 percent of the attendees said they want Trump to run again in 2024. As president, Trump’s approval rating among GOP voters was often north of 80 percent, sometimes as much as 90 percent.

“Sen. Blunt has every right to retire and figure out what else he wants to do with his time instead of trying to deal with the push and pull from the Trump and establishment forces battling it out for the next several years,” Bonjean added.

Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said Blunt would certainly like to be Senate GOP leader, but with McConnell winning reelection last year, “his way is likely blocked for the foreseeable future.”

Another potential factor for Blunt’s retirement “that’s easy to speculate about is that he doesn’t like the way Washington politics are running.” 

“He’s always billed as an institutionalist,” Smith said, adding that Blunt has “a greater commitment to good government, public service and the institution than we see among many of his colleagues.”

“That must be a source of frustration for him,” he added. “They don’t show the same commitment to being — this is not a pejorative term for me — a professional politician, a professional legislator. He must see some of them as more or less professional ideologues who appeal to an outside constituency or national audience as a priority over getting things done in Congress.” 

A former aide close to Blunt said “the Senate is going to be a lesser place” without Blunt, Toomey, Portman, Burr and former Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a close friend of McConnell’s who retired at the end of the 116th Congress.

The source said Blunt and his retiring colleagues “understood what it took to govern and those choices weren’t always easy, they were not always popular.”

“We are in a time when in politics, both on the Democratic side and the Republican side, hyperbole is more what people are paying attention to than statesmanship,” the former aide said.

The source noted that Blunt, 71, first became an elected official at the age of 23. He came to Congress in 1997, serving in the House before joining the Senate in 2011.

“Roy has been in public service all his working life,” the former aide said.

Blunt’s departure reflects the growing realization that winning back control of the Senate in 2022 will be difficult for Republicans as they play defense in states like North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

Republicans will have to defend 20 seats next year, compared to 14 for Democrats.

Senate Democrats hailed Blunt’s retirement as more evidence that the 2022 battleground map is shaping up nicely for them.

“Senate Republicans have a retirement problem,” said Christie Roberts, executive director of the campaign arm for Senate Democrats. “Fresh off opposing urgently needed relief for Americans impacted by the pandemic and economic crisis, they’re facing a growing list of defensive liabilities that shows even Republican incumbents don’t like their chances in 2022.”

A Democratic strategist argued that while Missouri has trended Republican in recent years and won’t be at the top of the target list in 2022, the race could become more competitive if there’s a competitive Republican primary. 

“The reality is that you could now have a very messy, divisive Republican primary that produces a very flawed candidate at the end of this process. So I do think it adds another layer of unpredictability that’s going to create more interest in the race overall,” the strategist said.

Missouri Republicans blew an opportunity to defeat then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) in 2012 when former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), a Tea Party conservative, beat out a crowded field to win the GOP primary, only to effectively sink his campaign by later proclaiming that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy.

The biggest challenge for Democrats in 2022 is to find a top-tier candidate.

Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who gave Blunt a tough race in 2016, losing by only 3 percentage points, tweeted Monday that he won’t run for Blunt’s seat but would campaign for the Democratic nominee. 

McCaskill also said she is out of the running.

“To all that are asking: thank you to the many who have said kind things. But I will never run for office again. Nope. Not gonna happen. Never,” she tweeted.

Smith, the Washington University professor, said Democrats will have a tough time winning Blunt’s seat. 

“The chances are slim,” he said, noting that the president’s party tends to lose seats in Congress during midterm elections. “It’s going to be a midterm year for the Democrats and that’s a tough one. Missouri has been trending Republican, slowly but surely and that will be tough.” 

But, he said, there could be an opening depending on what happens in the GOP primary.

“The Republicans in Missouri cannot always be counted on making good choices on candidates so they can blow it but it’s probably their seat to keep if they manage to somehow coordinate on someone who would be an effective candidate,” he said. “There are going to be lots of candidates.”

GOP sources close to Blunt say he felt confident he could have won reelection to a third term, but wasn’t relishing the idea of another grueling campaign and wanted to spend the next two years focusing on legislative priorities instead.

“Do you want to spend the next two years campaigning or do you want to go out on your own terms, get some stuff done, have a good legacy and go out on the right note?” said one Republican strategist.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Claire McCaskill Donald Trump Lamar Alexander Missouri Mitch McConnell Pat Toomey Richard Burr Rob Portman Roy Blunt Senate GOP leadership Senate Republicans
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