The Fall of the Republican Old Guard
The exodus of senators of the old establishment is manna from heaven for would-be replacements.
WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 05: U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) (R) leaves after a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Senate continues to debate the latest COVID-19 relief bill. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Roy Blunt—a man with a name out of heartland central casting, seemingly tailor-made for senatorial glory—will not run again for the upper chamber, a place he spent the better part of a lifetime trying to reach, the Missourian announced on Monday.
The senior senator from “the Mother of the West” joins a coterie of Republican establishment grandees from the Rust Belt who took a look at 2022, and looked away. The exits of Blunt, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania leave Minority Leader Mitch McConnell further isolated, following the close, but politically calamitous forfeiture of the Senate in January.
These fresh departures portend high-wattage duels in three states critical to the coalitions of both former President Barack Obama and former President Donald Trump. As recently as 2008, Missouri, like Indiana (!), almost went blue. By 2016, Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania were all in the Trump column. These are medium-large states which in recent years have oscillated between sending to Washington stalwart Democrats, such as Claire McCaskill and Sherrod Brown, and rock-ribbed Republicans, like Josh Hawley.
The conventional view on this development is that it’s straight-up bad omens all around for the Republicans, a party riding out a rolling identity crisis over the future of Trump. It’s standard fare for incumbents to lose and lose big in the midterm elections, and no one knows this better than President Joe Biden, who served as principal lieutenant to Obama in 2010 and was in his third decade of senatorial service when President Bill Clinton was walloped in 1994. But Democrats and their allies are feeling hopeful they can buck the trend. Biden is and will be the beneficiary of potentially considerable headwinds: He experiences personal approval far in excess of his own party; the U.S. vaccine rollout is uneven right now but in process; and his lo-fi approach in the White House is, for many Americans, a welcome change in tone.
But from California, to the Midwest, to Virginia, a budding new generation of Republicans see things much differently, buoyed by Trump’s stunning, record performance with minorities in 2020, despite (or because of?) restrictive immigration policies, and despite a presidential term marred by ubiquitous accusations of racism. Because despite a once-in-a-century pandemic, despite his rowdy approach, he almost pulled it off. While Trump plainly embarrassed himself with a vainglorious, disorganized attempt to reverse the election results, and then played his part in embroiling the nation in additional tragedy, moving forward, President Biden may be popular but the Democrats are not. And it is the Democrats on the ballot in 2021 and 2022, starting with the possible gubernatorial recall election in the Golden State (California deadline is next week) and, for Republicans, the tantalizing prospect of recapturing the governor’s mansion in Virginia.
One gubernatorial candidate claimed to me that he believes that despite it all by fall and into next year the fallout from school closures, inner-city violence, a politicized vaccine rollout, and even a possible stock market correction or collapse, owing to inflation and asymmetric attacks on the system, could help hand the keys back to the Republicans. If so, many of the would-be replacements are offering different medicine than their predecessors, a fact put firmly on display in the recent minimum wage debates in Congress and the intellectual chatter on the right about family policy, where more conservatives are convinced the state should provide a helping hand.
In Pennsylvania, Trumpist apparatchiks are trying to police the lanes on associational grounds, with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon proclaiming to Politico that any successor must be “full Trump MAGA.” But though Trump is ramping up his endorsement game, as a tool of tradecraft to stay atop the party, that’s not the only valence of this political game. It’s clear that J.D. Vance in Ohio, for instance, while he would without question accept the former president’s endorsement, would unveil a brand of populism unto himself, just as Hawley has.
And in Missouri, Blunt’s successor is unlikely to be in the man’s mold.
The senator’s son, former Missouri governor Matt Blunt, is a now a longtime lobbyist, and in the decade-and-a-half since the father-son duo first stormed statewide the Blunt dynasty has become more distrusted by the base. The younger Blunt took the governor’s mansion in 2004, and the elder Blunt won in the Senate in 2010, after decades of climbing the ladder. Blunt the younger is seen as unlikely to enter the race. If dynastic politics be the fate of the state, I’m told the best shot is for Jay Ashcroft, the secretary of state and the son of the notorious Bush-era U.S. attorney general, to run.
But the two heavyweight contenders are Eric Greitens, the controversial former governor, who has cultivated a relationship with Bannon, and Rep. Jason Smith.
Jason Rosenbaum of St. Louis Public Radio argued Monday on Twitter that Smith could potentially clear the field, reporting that most people he’s spoken with in the state “agree that a @RepJasonSmith candidacy makes a @EricGreitens #MOSEN run even less likely to succeed since Smith is a) a hard worker b) a good fundraiser and c) has credibility among fans of former President Trump.”
Smith keeps his cards close to the chest, but as Rosenbaum’s last points indicates, Smith is more in the Hawley mold than Blunt’s—and, critically for his fortunes, he has a personal relationship with Trump. Chris Buskirk of American Greatness writes in the New York Times Monday that “there is a generational divide among Republicans.” At just forty, Smith’s age is as indicative of a changing of the guard as anything.