WASHINGTON – Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri – the No. 4 Senate Republican leader and an experienced Capitol Hill dealmaker – said Monday that he would not seek reelection next year, becoming the fifth veteran GOP senator to bow out of the midterm elections.
While Blunt’s seat probably will remain in Republican hands, his retirement is certain to spark a chaotic GOP primary campaign that could pit a controversial former governor against several sitting Missouri officials.
That race could ultimately nominate a candidate much more ideological and confrontational than the 71-year-old Blunt, who has spent 24 years in the House and Senate, balancing party loyalty as a longtime member of the GOP leadership ranks with considerable skills as an inside operator able to cut high-stakes deals with Democrats on must-pass bills.
Blunt found his cordial, transactional style increasingly out of step with the mood of his party’s base – especially after the election of President Donald Trump, whom Blunt sometimes gently criticized, particularly on matters of foreign policy. But he gave little indication that he was seriously considering retirement as he voted consistently in line with Trump – at least until Jan. 6, when he broke from scores of congressional Republicans, including Missouri’s junior senator, Josh Hawley, to reject challenges to Trump’s November loss.
His decision now creates immediate headaches for Republican political strategists – who will work on a fifth open GOP seat in next year’s elections, another intraparty contest that could complicate the party’s quest to retake the majority.
Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania have chosen not to run. Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have yet to announce their intentions.
For the past six years, Blunt has managed one of the largest and most sensitive portfolios on the Senate Appropriations Committee – overseeing hundreds of billions of dollars in yearly health-care and labor spending that routinely becomes the focus of pitched policy battles over abortion and other issues.
He also serves as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose work is among the most bipartisan on Capitol Hill, and recently presided over the congressional committee that organized President Biden’s inauguration.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Monday called Blunt’s decision “a loss for the Republican conference and the entire Senate.”
“In just 10 years in this body, he’s quickly become a true leader, a policy heavyweight, and a driving force behind both key conservative victories and essential bipartisan work,” McConnell said in a statement. “I’m very sorry he’ll be stepping away but am glad the country has two more years to keep benefiting from his talent.”
In a two-minute video announcing the surprise decision Monday, Blunt cited his “practical sense of getting the job done” in looking back on his congressional service, highlighting his role in funding medical research and improving mental health care.
“After 14 general election victories – three to county office, seven to the United States House of Representatives, and four statewide elections – I won’t be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate next year,” he said, adding: “There’s still a lot to do, and I look forward to every day, this year and next year, as I continue to work for you in the Senate.”
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, cited Donald Trump’s 15-point Missouri victory margin last year in guaranteeing that Republicans would hold the seat.
“Any candidate who supports the Democrats’ socialist, big government agenda will struggle to find votes in Missouri,” he said in a statement that glossed over some of the complications that might ensue.
Over the past two decades, Missouri has transformed from a perennial swing state into solid Republican territory as White, working-class voters have moved sharply away from the Democratic Party. But GOP strategists fear a divisive Republican nominee could run into trouble against a talented Democrat – which much of the anxiety surrounding a potential comeback attempt by former governor Eric Greitens, who had previously floated a possible primary challenge to Blunt.
Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, resigned in 2018 under the threat of impeachment after he was criminally charged in connection with an alleged blackmail scheme that targeted a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair. Greitens admitted to the affair but denied committing blackmail and other allegations of abuse. The charges were dropped. Last year he accused his political enemies of fabricating the scheme to drive him from office.
Any number of other Missouri Republicans, however, could also enter the race. GOP strategists involved in the state believe that Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, Lieutenant Gov. Mike Kehoe, Reps. Jason Smith and Ann Wagner, and Tim Garrison, a former U.S. attorney, could all mount credible runs, among others.
They are also buoyed by early decisions by two of the best-known Democrats in the state to pass on 2022 runs. Former senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who lost her seat to Hawley in 2018, tweeted Monday that she “will never run for office again.”
“Nope. Not gonna happen. Never,” she wrote.
And Jason Kander, a former Missouri secretary of state who came within three points of defeating Blunt in 2016, said in a tweet that his previously announced decision not to run stood in light of Blunt’s decision.
“My decision not to run was never about who I’d run against,” said Kander, who now runs a veterans nonprofit. “Love this work, don’t want a new job. I’ll campaign for the Dem nominee!”
One Democrat who has already entered the race, state Sen. Scott Sifton, welcomed Blunt’s announcement Monday.
“Missourians have an opportunity to vote for better leadership than they’ve been getting from our two Senators,” said Sifton, who represents a suburban St. Louis district. “We cannot double down on the dangerous Josh Hawley approach of undermining democracy and dividing Missourians.”
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The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.