On Monday, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt became the fifth Republican senator to announce that he would not seek reelection in 2022. Blunt’s decision came as a surprise as his spokesperson had said in November that the senator would be seeking a third term, though Blunt himself sounded a bit less sure the following January.
Blunt’s decision will set off an open seat race in a former swing state that has swung hard to the right during the 21st century. Donald Trump took Missouri last year 57-41, while Republican Gov. Mike Parsons won reelection by that very same margin against the only Democrat who holds statewide office: state Auditor Nicole Galloway. Blunt himself only scraped by in 2016 49-46, but Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill lost reelection to Republican Josh Hawley two years later 51-46 despite the 2018 blue wave.
It remains to be seen if Blunt’s departure will entice national Democrats to take a harder look at the Show Me State. Democrats already had a notable candidate, former state Sen. Scott Sifton, running before Blunt retired, and it’s possible others will get in now.
Blunt’s decision also ends a very long career in state and national politics. Blunt got his start by volunteering on fellow Republican John Ashcroft’s 1972 bid for Congress; Ashcroft lost the primary, but the following year, Gov. Kit Bond appointed Blunt as clerk for Greene County, which is home to Springfield. In 1978, Blunt’s father, Leroy Blunt, was also elected to the state House by beating Betty Anne McCaskill, the mother of the younger Blunt’s future Senate colleague.
Roy Blunt unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 1980, but he bounced back four years later when he was elected secretary of state. Blunt then campaigned for governor in 1992 in an ugly primary that included Attorney General William Webster, who was under federal investigation at the time for corruption.
Blunt ran a commercial made by future Fox executive Roger Ailes that attacked the attorney general’s ethics with a visual of men on a merry-go-round wildly laughing as they placed cash in a “Webster Campaign” barrel before they took money out of a “State Fund” one. Blunt also focused on allegations that Webster’s campaign had distributed a booklet full of plagiarized passages.
Webster won the primary 44-39 only to lose the general to Democrat Mel Carnahan. The following year, Webster would plead guilty to felony embezzlement, while Blunt took over as president of his alma mater, Southwest Baptist University. Blunt’s departure from elected office was short, though, and he sought an open U.S. House seat in 1996 in the heavily Republican southwestern corner of the state. Blunt prevailed in the primary 56-44 before easily winning in the fall in the 7th District.
Blunt never had any trouble holding his seat over the following decade, and his family also continued to extend its influence in Missouri politics. The congressman’s son, Matt Blunt, was the one Republican to win statewide office in 2000 when he was elected secretary of state, and the younger Blunt won a promotion in 2004 by narrowly beating Claire McCaskill for governor. Roy Blunt himself also climbed the ranks in D.C. when he was named House majority whip, the caucus’ third ranking post, that same year.
Blunt took over as acting majority leader in 2005 when Texas Rep. Tom DeLay stepped aside after being indicted, and he campaigned to keep the job the following year after DeLay permanently left the post. However, while Blunt appeared to be the frontrunner for the job that would have put him in line to become speaker, he unexpectedly lost to Ohio Rep. John Boehner. Blunt remained whip, and he became minority whip after the GOP lost control of the House in 2006.
Things took a bad turn for the Blunt family in 2008 when the unpopular Matt Blunt announced that he would not seek re-election as governor. The elder Blunt also stepped down as whip after the party took more House losses that fall, a move that seemed to mark the end of his time in D.C. as a major power player.
That’s very much not what happened, though. In 2009, Blunt quickly entered the race to succeed his old ally Kit Bond as senator, and he scared off any serious intra-party opposition. State Sen. Chuck Purgason had hoped to ride the tea party wave to the GOP nomination against the longtime party establishment figure, but Blunt won the nomination 71-13.
Blunt’s opponent that fall was Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the daughter of the late Mel Carnahan. Missouri had originally looked like a top Democratic target as McCaskill had flipped the other Senate seat in 2006 and John McCain had carried the state only 49.4-49.2, and early polls showed Carnahan smoking Blunt. Once again, however, things worked out far better for Blunt than almost anyone expected. 2010 was a horrible year for Democrats nationally, and Missouri’s continuing lurch to the right helped power Blunt to a 54-41 win.
Blunt’s 2016 campaign, though, would go very differently. The senator looked secure for most of the cycle against another Democratic secretary of state, Jason Kander, but Blunt’s middling approval ratings at home almost proved to be his undoing. Kander, who served with the Army in Afghanistan, proved to be an extremely strong comer even before he went up with a viral ad where he assembled a rifle blindfolded. Major outside groups on both sides spent heavily here, and while Blunt prevailed 49-46, he ran far behind Trump’s 56-38 showing.