When he announced Monday that he wouldn’t seek a third term, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt created only the third open Missouri Senate seat in 30 years.
But the state's 71-year-old senior senator said in an interview Friday he is more than content with his decision that will bring to a close a landmark career that started in the Greene County clerk’s office and took him to GOP leadership in the House and Senate.
“I’m very much not a second thoughts guy,” Blunt said. “I’m a next chapter guy, not a last chapter guy. I feel like it’s the right decision.”
Blunt said he’d been mulling over his future in elected office for some time. He’s served in Congress since 1997, after being elected to a House seat encompassing southwest Missouri. Before that, he served two terms as secretary of state as well as a tenure in the 1970s as Greene County clerk.
One reason he’s content with leaving is he’s confident that Republicans can hold onto his Senate seat. Republican candidates have prevailed in all but one statewide contest since 2014.
“I think I would have been easily reelected this time,” Blunt said. “But then you’ve got to serve. The Senate decision is the longest decision in elected office. You decide about now whether you’re going to run or not. And then when elected, I think people expect you to serve. So it’s an eight-year decision.”
Blunt said former President Donald Trump asked him to run for a third term.
Blunt faced heat from other Republicans, namely former Gov. Eric Greitens, for voting to sustain President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. Blunt voted to acquit Trump during his second impeachment trial earlier this year.
When he was chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Blunt was the point person for Trump’s 2017 inauguration — as was the case this year when Biden was sworn into office. So Blunt said he spent a lot of time with Trump before he was inaugurated, which he added created a unique relationship between them.
“I think we were able to have a more frank friendship than he was able to have with many people,” Blunt said. “We could disagree and still continue to go out with appreciation for each other. He did call me about three weeks ago and, assuming I was going to run, he said: ‘I’m going to do anything I can to help. I’ll endorse you any day you want me to. Be there anytime you want.’”
When Trump asked Blunt if he was still popular in Missouri, Blunt replied: “‘Mr. President, you’re still the most popular political figure in our state, and your endorsement will be helpful to anybody.’”
As of now, a number of Republicans — including Greitens, Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and U.S. Reps. Jason Smith, Ann Wagner and Billy Long — are seriously considering running to succeed Blunt.
When asked if his open line of communication with Trump could empower him to steer the former president away from endorsing someone like Greitens, Blunt said: “I made a decision that I mentioned Monday that I’m not going to be publicly building up or denigrating candidates. Let them sort that out themselves.”
“In our state, [Trump’s endorsement] would make a difference in the primary,” Blunt said. “Having his help would have made the primary easy. And I think it’s going to be an easy general election for almost any Republican candidate. Again, Democrats are overreaching with a bill they just passed.”
Blunt emphasized that one of the key consequences of his decision to not run for reelection is that it allows him to focus on being effective in the Senate for the next couple of years.
Even as a member of the minority, Blunt has considerable influence — especially since he serves on the powerful Appropriations Committee and in Senate Republican leadership.
“It creates an opportunity for me to be really focused on the things I’ve been working on,” Blunt said. “And I think we’ve made substantial headway in research and mental health equity and job preparation and understanding the importance of people being connected to high-speed broadband. And I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do to bring all of that to as much of a forward conclusion as I can so that the work we started in the last decade in the Senate goes on.”
A number of national commentators have observed that the decision of Republicans like Blunt, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey to retire showcases a blow to lawmakers who are interested in policy accomplishments as opposed to checking off ideological boxes. “Both edges of the political parties are very set in place right now," Blunt said.
“And frankly, if you look at what happened in the last four years on regulatory reform, on tax reform, on border issues — big significant things happened. The idea that we didn’t get much done, I’d argue with that,” Blunt said. “I wouldn’t argue with the idea that we certainly could have done it with more bills and more amendments, but that’s been a 10-year problem — not a four-year problem.”
He said his advice to people running for the Senate is “don’t spend a lot of time talking about what you won’t do.”
“I think it was a mistake about a decade ago when we began to have more and more candidates say, ‘If you elect me, I won’t settle for anything less than exactly what I want,’” Blunt said. “In a democracy, that means you almost never get anything. Democracy doesn’t work that way. And in fact, anybody good at this understands, as Ronald Reagan did, that if you get 80% of what you want — that’s a really big victory in a democracy.”
Even though he charted out a successful career in federal politics, Blunt said his favorite job, in a career that started in the 1970s, was Missouri secretary of state. He served two terms, from 1985 to 1993.
As the first GOP secretary of state in more than 50 years, Blunt said his tenure as Greene County clerk made him well-prepared for the office that oversees the state’s elections. He also said he had a great relationship with his predecessor, Democrat Jim Kirkpatrick, and valued the experience of having to sometimes work with a Democratic-controlled Missouri General Assembly.
“In an executive job, you can make a lot of decisions that you have to ask very many people about,” Blunt said. “That was a time when the legislature was 2-to-1 Democrat. So when you did have to have a legislative decision made, you needed to understand how you reached to the other side and got them involved in that decision as well.”
Blunt said that the fact that he came to Washington, D.C., with extensive experience in county and state government set him apart from other lawmakers.
“I’ve been fortunate in the Congress,” Blunt said. “In the Senate, I bring the former county official, former statewide elected official, leader in the House, leader in the Senate. Nobody else was able to bring those things to the Senate in the same way. So I enjoyed the Senate.”
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum