Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt Sets Off 2022 GOP ‘Melee’ By Announcing He Won’t Seek Reelection
Updated at 6 p.m. March 8
Chris Arps, a Republican activist from St. Louis County, was banking on the 2022 election cycle being somewhat mundane — an assumption that was thrown out the window Monday when U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt announced he wouldn’t run for a third term.
It’s a move that many Republicans, like Arps, feel will open up a primary that could pit statewide officials, members of Congress and former elected officials against each other.
“This is going to be a full melee in 2022,” Arps said. “2022 was looking like it was going to be a sleepy election. I don’t think so now.”
Blunt, who was first elected to the Senate in 2010 and narrowly reelected in 2016, made the announcement in a video posted on his Twitter page. The 71-year-old southwest Missouri native touted his accomplishments involving national security and mental health research before dropping the political bombshell.
“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 the United States Senate next year,” said Blunt, who made the announcement at his family dairy farm. “I want to thank my family and the great team that came together to help me work for you. Most importantly, thanks to Missourians, whether you voted for me or not, for the opportunity to work for you and a better future for our state and our country.”
Blunt’s announcement ends a successful political career that saw him meticulously climb the ladder from Greene County clerk to the secretary of state’s office to leadership posts in Congress.
While in the House, Blunt served as the majority whip — and was often tasked with getting his GOP colleagues to vote for key pieces of legislation. After U.S. Sen. Kit Bond decided against running for reelection, Blunt won the 2010 election to succeed him in a landslide over then-Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. He won a narrow victory in 2016 over Jason Kander.
During his Senate tenure, Blunt was a key member of the Appropriations Committee — where he was able to direct money to the National Institutes of Health. He also was a member of the GOP leadership, giving him a big say in the direction of his caucus.
“I’ve worked for things that can produce a better-prepared workforce,” Blunt said. “And where we live — when you combine that with transportation systems that work, utility bills families can pay, and no more government regulations than we have to have — good, family-supporting jobs follow.”
Praise and criticism
Blunt’s announcement set off a wave of well wishes from prominent Republicans in the state, including some who may want to succeed him, like Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe.
“Missourians will have an important decision to make about who is best to fill this vital Senate seat in 2022,” Kehoe said. “Claudia (his wife) and I intend to spend some time talking with family, friends and supporters about how I can best contribute to the future of our state.”
Besides Kehoe, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft could also jump into the contest. Ashcroft’s decision looms especially large, since he crushed his opponents in the 2016 and 2020 election cycles and might be able to rack up huge amounts of votes in southwest Missouri. His father, John Ashcroft — a former U.S. attorney general, senator and governor — is highly respected in Missouri GOP circles.
But Jay Ashcroft may hold off on a Senate bid to run for governor in 2024, when Mike Parson will be barred from running again. Before John Ashcroft won the 1994 election to the U.S. Senate, he served two consecutive terms as governor — the only Republican to ever accomplish that feat.
“Senator Blunt has served Missouri in many ways. History teacher, Greene County Clerk, Missouri Secretary of State, university president, United States House of Representatives and United States Senate. I appreciate Senator Blunt’s service to Missouri and our country,” Jay Ashcroft said in a statement. “It is imperative that Republicans take back the Senate in 2022. Katie [his wife] and I will be praying and talking to friends and family about how I can serve the state of Missouri.”
Blunt faced some Republican flak this year when he announced he would not object to President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. Some Trump supporters, like former Gov. Eric Greitens, had been signaling they could run against Blunt for weeks.
“It’s something that I’m certainly going to keep the door open to and take a look at,” Greitens said in an interview last week with 97.1 FM in St. Louis.
Smith looms large
The prospect of a Greitens bid has made some Missouri Republicans nervous, especially since he could serve as an easy target for Democrats, such as former state Sen. Scott Sifton, because of his resignation in 2018 over a sex scandal.
Former state Sen. John Lamping, who was a Greitens backer during his 2016 bid, said Blunt’s departure actually makes a Greitens candidacy much less appealing — because it would be harder for him to characterize his opponents as insiders who don’t like Trump. And he added it’s possible that someone like U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, who has emphasized his support of the former president for years, could carry the anti-establishment mantle for Missouri Republicans.
“He (Greitens) can’t run against Roy, and that’s the only person I think he could have beaten in the primary,” Lamping said. “If they’re super smart, they coalesce around Jason Smith. Because Jason Smith passes the populist test. D.C. knows him, and Missouri thinks he’s a Trumpian guy. And Trump likes him.”
Both Smith, as well as U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, would have to give up their congressional seats in order to run for the Senate — while other statewide contenders wouldn’t.
Smith said: “I am truly humbled by the outreach from Missourians interested in ensuring Missouri continues to have a strong voice in the United States Senate.
“I will continue talking to working-class families, farmers, and small-business owners across our state to see how I can best serve and protect them from the radical Pelosi-Schumer-Biden agenda which has taken a hold of our government and threatens the things we value most.”
Wagner, who just won a tough reelection race decisively against Democratic state Sen. Jill Schupp, said: “I have been proud to work throughout Missouri prior to my time in public service and am humbled by the outpouring of encouragement from folks across our great state today.
“I take their outreach seriously, and plan to discuss with my family what the future holds for me in the coming days.”
One thing that could cut through a potentially crowded primary is an endorsement from Trump. Former Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Jean Evans said his backing could tip the scales in a crowded primary.
“I think whoever the nominee is is going to want that Trump endorsement for the primary, because it’s a big deal in a Missouri primary,” Evans said.
Can Democrats compete?
When Blunt called U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver on Monday morning to tell him he wasn’t running for another term, the Kansas City Democrat said he was astonished.
The two have worked closely together over the years, including passing a bill celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the Negro Leagues. Cleaver said Blunt’s retirement makes working across the aisle more challenging.
“This is not a positive sign that he’s stepping down,” Cleaver said.
Missouri Democrats have been in the political wilderness for the past several election cycles, losing nearly every statewide election since 2016 — often by wide margins. But some are bullish that a divisive Republican primary would make it easier for people like Sifton to make it over the finish line.
“Missourians have an opportunity to vote for better leadership than they’ve seen from our two senators,” Sifton said. “We cannot double down on the dangerous Josh Hawley approach of undermining democracy and dividing Missourians. I’m running to deliver for working families like I have my entire career.”
Sifton may not be alone in the Democratic primary. After Blunt’s announcement, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, a Democrat, put out a statement saying he’s giving serious thought to running for the open seat.
University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Anita Manion said there’s skepticism about whether Democrats can compete in Missouri.
“First of all, Missouri is pretty solidly red at this point,” Manion said. “But I don’t know if the Democrats have a strong candidate to go up against somebody.”
Both former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and former Secretary of State Jason Kander issued statements on Twitter saying they won’t run for the Senate next year. Kander especially has been emphatic that he wasn’t planning to reenter electoral politics yet, preferring instead to focus on his work with the Veterans Community Project.
Still, Manion said Blunt’s departure speaks volumes about the direction of the Republican Party. All of the GOP senators who have declined to run for another term in 2022 voted to certify Biden’s Electoral College victory.
“I think this has definitely put a lot of uncertainty and energy and interest into this. And not just in Missouri, but around the country,” Manion said. “This is a trend of more establishment, institutional senators on the Republican side announcing they will not seek reelection. So it changes the race in Missouri, and it also changes what the face of the Republican Party can be in the Senate as well.”
KCUR’S Aviva Okeson-Haberman contributed to this report.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum