Virus Outbreak Congress

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., heads to the chamber as the Senate holds a voting marathon on the Democrats' $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that's expected to end with the chamber's approval of the measure, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, March 5, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said Monday he will not seek reelection, making him the fifth Republican in the Senate to bow out rather than seek another term in a party searching for direction after President Donald Trump.

"My belief is, I've been around this state and have been in more places in this state than almost anybody else who has served in public office," he said during a press conference Monday. "I've done my best to serve well."

Blunt, who turned 71 in January, was widely expected to seek a third term in 2022. Before election to the Senate he served seven terms in the U.S. House. He also served two terms as Missouri’s secretary of state from 1985 to 1993.

“In every job Missourians have allowed me to have, I’ve tried to do my best,” Blunt said in his announcement made via video. “In almost 12,000 votes in the Congress, I’m sure I wasn’t right every time, but you really make that decision based on the information you have at the time.

“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 re-election to the United States Senate next year,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Blunt's retirement “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.

Blunt's Missouri colleague, Republican Josh Hawley, called Blunt "a Missouri institution.

“A consummate legislator, Roy has worked tirelessly for the state he loves and has served Missourians with distinction,” Hawley said in a statement.

Blunt is the No. 4 in Senate Republican leadership. The five Senate Republicans not seeking reelection could set up contested primaries highlighting divisions between far-right, Trump-aligned Republicans and the old guard of the party. The others are Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Richard Burr of North Carolina.

Two other Republicans — Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — have not yet said whether they plan to seek reelection.

In Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, in particular, Democrats have hopes of winning seats. Of the remaining three, Missouri and Ohio have both trended Republican in recent years, and Alabama should be safe for the GOP.

It’s not clear whether Trump-induced Republican turmoil is playing a major role in Senate retirements so far. While he has generally supported Trump, Blunt has broken with him occasionally.

Like most Republican senators, he voted against Trump’s effort to upend his November election loss. He also opposed Trump’s veto of last year’s sweeping defense policy bill, and backed a failed effort to prevent Trump from unilaterally shifting money to border wall construction.

Of the five announced retirees so far, four are age 65 or older and all have been in Congress for a decade or more. Ohio’s Portman said he had wearied of the intense polarization of today’s politics, but none of the others publicly suggested the political atmosphere contributed to their decisions.

“For Roy public service has never been about himself, let alone about anger and confrontation,” former Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, said in a statement. “I wish Roy every bit of personal fulfillment that his retirement will bring. But in my heart, I wish he would remain our senator for as long as the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers flow.”

Based on history, Republicans have reason for optimism for regaining control of the 50-50 Senate. The party that does not hold the White House generally gains seats in mid-term congressional elections. However, Republicans will be defending 20 seats and Democrats just 14 in next year’s election.

As usual in Senate elections, most seats at stake in 2022 are from states that one party or the other dominates. Only roughly half a dozen seats held by each party appear potentially competitive, though that can change based on who the candidates are and the unpredictability of what issues predominate next year.

Democratic aspirations are muted in Missouri. After former Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill lost her seat to Hawley in 2018, there’s only one statewide elected Democrat remaining in office: Auditor Nicole Galloway. McCaskill has already opted out of running again.

A deep bench of Republicans serving in statewide seats could make a bid to replace Blunt, including Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick and Attorney General Eric Schmitt. All three are in their thirties or forties.

Blunt told News 4 he is not thinking about who might replace him, saying the process will sort all of that out. Blunt also told News 4 that former President Trump called him Monday to say he would have supported him if he decided to run for re-election.

Washington University political scientist Steven Smith expects a “scramble” for the job.

“It looks like a seat that Republicans can have for the asking,” Smith said. “My guess is there will be few moderates running for the seat because winning a primary in Missouri means you need to be quite conservative.”

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe in a Monday statement hinted that he's considering a run.

Other possible Republican candidates include former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned amid fallout from a sex scandal and ethics investigations in 2018.

In a radio interview last week, Greitens said he is thinking about running, but said he has not made a final decision.

“I am evaluating right now what I’m going to be doing this year,” he said. "Unfortunately Roy Blunt has been out siding with Mitch McConnell, he’s been criticizing the [former] president of the United States over what happened on Jan. 6, he’s been criticizing the [former] president of the United States for not coming to Joe Biden’s inauguration."

“Many Republicans are going to take a serious look at this race,” longtime Missouri GOP political operative John Hancock said. “It’s an extremely important seat in the U.S. Senate. Control of the U.S. Senate is on the ballot in 2022.

After a failed gubernatorial bid in 1992, Blunt was elected to the House in 1996 and reelected six times, winning by wide majorities each time. He was House majority whip from 2003 to 2007.

After incumbent Republican Sen. Kit Bond announced his retirement in 2009, Blunt ran for the vacated seat and defeated Democrat Robin Carnahan by a 54% to 41% vote in 2010. He narrowly won reelection in 2016, defeating Democrat Jason Kander by less than 3 percentage points. Kander indicated he wasn’t interested in trying again.

Yet, Democrats remained hopeful.

“Senate Republicans have a retirement problem,” Christie Roberts, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Fresh off of 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.”

Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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