The year 2021 has not started off well for the Republican Party in the Senate. Missouri Senator Roy Blunt is the latest Republican incumbent to announce his refusal to run for re-election in 2022. Senators Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Richard Shelby of Alabama, and Richard Burr of North Carolina had all previously announced their pending retirements with perhaps two or three more still contemplating their futures.
This definitely complicates the Republicans’ task of winning back the Senate. The GOP was already defending 20 seats in 2022 while the Democrats were only defending 14, making many races competitive that wouldn’t have been with an incumbent running.
That means money and effort. And Republicans spending money and making the effort to defend open Senate seats means they have less to spend on more vulnerable colleagues. Associated Press:
“Any time you lose an incumbent, it’s bad news,” said Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who briefly worked for failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin nearly a decade ago. “Missouri’s not necessarily a safe state for Republicans. Democrats have won there.”
The 71-year-old Blunt’s exit is a reminder of how the nation’s politics have shifted since the rise of Donald Trump. Blunt and his retiring GOP colleagues from Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Alabama represent an old guard who fought for conservative policies but sometimes resisted the deeply personal attacks and uneven governance that dominated the Trump era.
Their departures will leave a void likely to be filled by a new generation of Republicans more willing to embrace Trumpism — or by Democrats.
Republicans in Alabama and Missouri won’t suffer by nominating a pro-Trump candidate. But Pennsylvania will be a dogfight no matter who the GOP nominates and Ohio isn’t likely to be any easier. It’s safe to assume that where Trump has done well, pro-Trump candidates will thrive. But in states that were competitive in the 2020 presidential election, a Trump-backed candidate may run into some headwinds.
Steven Law, a key ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, warned that Republicans may be beginning to repeat the mistakes of 2010, when the GOP lost the Senate majority by embracing flawed far-right candidates.
“We have an opportunity to win back a majority,” Law said. “But in 2010, that opportunity was lost on the Senate side because of unelectable candidates who got nominated.”
The “flaw” wasn’t that they were far-right. The flaw was that those candidates allowed the Democrats to define them — death in any competitive race.
The priority for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and the RNC is to find the best candidates available. There will be no shortage of Republicans willing and eager to replace retiring senators given the GOP’s chances of flipping the Senate.
But every race is critical. Neither side can afford to lose a single seat. Democrats are extremely vulnerable in Georgia and Arizona — two strong Republican states — while Republicans will fight tooth and nail to keep the Ohio and Pennsylvania seats.
What if more Republican incumbents retire? Iowa’s 87-year-old Senator Chuck Grassley will probably not run for re-election and neither will Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. While Iowa has been trending Republican — Trump won in both 2016 and 2020 — it could easily be a competitive state for Democrats. Wisconsin will be a toss-up no matter who is nominated.
The “Trump effect” will be uneven. In states and areas where he did well, Republicans should be alright in most cases. But where Trump’s name is mud, it will be an uphill slog for any pro-Trump candidate.
The reality for Republicans is that the Democrats have fewer vulnerable seats to defend. And that lengthens the odds that the GOP can flip the upper chamber in 2022.