Mar 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Senate retirements could attract GOP troublemakers

Sen. Roy Blunt is seen speaking during a news conference.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Roy Blunt's retirement highlights the twin challenge facing Senate Republicans: finding good replacement candidates and avoiding a pathway for potential troublemakers to join their ranks.

Why it matters: While the midterm elections are supposed to be a boon to the party out of power, the recent run of retirements — which may not be over — is upending that assumption for the GOP in 2022.

  • People with sharp rhetoric and outlandish style who see themselves as Trumpian figures — similar to Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert in the House — may be attracted to the Republican Senate races.
  • And there's no question Donald Trump will want a say in each of the resulting primaries. The question: is the GOP more (Josh) Hawley than Blunt?

The big picture: As last weekend's drawn-out fight over President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package showed, every vote matters — especially in a 50-50 Senate.

  • Not one Republican voted in favor of the bill. And the entire measure could have been derailed by just one defecting Democrat.

Between the lines: The departing Republicans also pose an internal problem for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as he tries to retain control of his Senate caucus.

  • It's hard to replace serious, smart and productive team players like Blunt, of Missouri, as well as Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Richard Burr of North Carolina.
  • All five are fixtures in Republican politics, know how to get things done and aren't afraid to play ball with Democrats to achieve their aims.
  • Pending retirement also frees these members to make riskier decisions without fear of political consequence — something Burr and Toomey showed when they voted to impeach former President Trump in January.

What to watch: Several other Republicans are also considering retiring in 2022.

  • Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who, at 87 years old, is the second-oldest sitting senator. He's been deliberating for months about whether to seek reelection.
    • One source close to Grassley told Axios he feels increased pressure to hang on for another term, given so many others have dropped out.
  • Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who pledged in 2016 not to seek a third term. President Biden carried Wisconsin by less than a percentage point, making the state one of the tightest battlegrounds for 2022 and 2024.

The bottom line: McConnell has said the midterm elections will come down to one thing: electability.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that Burr, not Portman, voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial in January.

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