Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) announced in a video published in his Twitter account he was going to retire from his seat in the Senate coming the next cycle of elections in 2022. Blunt, who has represented the State of Missouri since 2011 after serving in the House of Representatives for more than 14 years is the latest of a set of GOP politicians who have announced their retirement from the Upper House coming 2022.
Blunt will be following the lead of Pat Toomey (PA-R), Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Shelby (R-AL), and Richard Burr (R-NC). Additionally, there are other senators like Chuck Grassley(R-IA), who’s 87 years old, is also up to reelection in two years, and might be considering to retire instead of running a exhausting new reelection campaign in 2022.
This set of retirements can have some significant consequences on the fate of the senate when the voters go to the polls in two years. Usually, it is easier for incumbents to win reelections than losing them, with the reelection rates in the Senate for 2018 being 84.4% and only four incumbents losing their 2020 reelection run out of the almost 29 who ran that year. As old and trusted faces go to political retirement, the possibility for new and fresher faces to have a decent chance in the race increase exponentially.
However, not every retirement will have the same effect. Some senators are coming from very red states (like Blunt) while others have served competitive ones (like Pat Toomey). The retirements will set the stage for two political challenges for the GOP: its ability to field competitive candidates for general elections and the amount of power the Trump wing has over the party.
The GOP toughest challenges: Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio
The GOP has some historical precedent that can make them feel good for recapturing Congress during the midterm elections. After all, one of the iron rules in American politics is that the President’s party usually performs badly during the midterms (you can ask Obama in 2010 or Trump in 2018), and they only have to gain a few seats in the House and net only one senator spot in the upper chamber.
However, things are not necessarily easy for the Party of Lincoln. First, the map is not the most favorable one, as they have to defend more seats than the Democrats (20 instead of 14) and some of these elections will be held in historically close states, like: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. As you can see, three of those states will have their home senators retiring coming next election, which definitely complicates the things for Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) aspirations of taking back control of the Senate.
Let’s begin with the two retirements which might have a big impact in the general election race during the fall of 2022: Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio. Out of these three states, President Trump lost Pennsylvania by an extremely tight margin (1.2%) barely kept North Carolina (1.3%) while delivering a convincing victory in Ohio (8.3%)
Pennsylvania is obviously the most difficult challenge the Republican Party faces in the next election cycle. President Biden won this key state by a painfully small margin, relying heavily on his base of support in the big cities of the state (Philadelphia and Pittsburg) while also outperforming Hillary Clinton in some suburb counties across the state. North Carolina also faces a similar challenge, with Trump winning the state despite heavy support for the Democrats in the main cities of the state (Raleigh, Greensboro, and Charlotte).
The retirement of Ohio’s Rob Portman will also prove to be a challenge for the Republicans. Even if President Trump won the state in both 2016 and 2020 with healthy margins, that trend does not necessarily translate to Republican landslides down the ballot. For example, in 2018 the Democrats managed to keep the seat by winning a 53.4% of the vote, while the party won the gubernatorial election but barley reached more than 50% of the vote. With Trump out of the ballot in 2022, we don’t know if Ohio will be as red as when he ran for President.
With Pat Toomey, Rob Portman, and Richard Burr retiring, the GOP will now have to endure a primary fight that would probably face trumpy candidates (Lara Trump has already been rumored as a candidate for NC seat) who would want to capture the support of his base, while also running the risk of fielding a general nominee who might be a darling in the Republican base but not very palatable for the general electorate.
More or less Trump?
Trump wants to retain great control on the destiny of the Republican Party, his speech in CPAC and his recent announcement aimed at taking away the financial muscle of the party from the RNC and directing it to his own PAC shows he is serious on this endeavor, an announcement that comes days after the former President has attempted to prevent the official fundraising arms of the GOP to use his image for fundraising activities. The retirements in Missouri and Alabama will be a testing ground for him to see if he can command the same amount of influence in races where he is not in the ballot.
Missouri and Alabama are heavily red states, the GOP comfortably won both states, with Alabama giving Trump a 62% share of the vote and Missouri a 54% margin. Trump is also very popular in both states, 8% net approval in Missouri and 28 in Alabama, according to Morning Consult. Hence, unless something out of the ordinary happens the Republicans will keep both seats come November 2022. The question is who will be the nominee and if Trump will be able to play the kingmaker position he aspires to achieve within the GOP.
The different rules in each state will also play a significant role during the primary fight. In Alabama, the rules indicate that whoever wants to win the nomination of any party needs to achieve a majority, if nobody does it then there will be a runoff between the top two candidates. In Missouri, on the other hand, the primary candidate who earns the most votes will gain the nomination regardless of the share of the vote.
This means that in both elections, whoever manages to get Trump’s endorsement could gain enough clout and momentum to win enough votes to either win the contest outright (like Missouri) or win enough votes in order to advance to the runoff phase (like Alabama). Trump would also see these contests as a perfect opportunity to gain the loyalty of politicians in Capitol Hill, as they would owe their political success to the former president.
We only are a month in on the Biden presidency. However, every political operative is already thinking in 2022. The recent retirements in the Senate will just be one variable on the complicated, messy, and unpredictable nature that characterizes the electoral process in America.