US Senate retirements give Trump a chance to show influence

Five Senate Republicans are not running for re-election next year, giving Trump an opportunity to cement his mark on the party.

Roy Blunt, right, is the fifth Senate Republican to announce his retirement, giving Donald Trump an opportunity to shape the future of the GOP [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]
Roy Blunt, right, is the fifth Senate Republican to announce his retirement, giving Donald Trump an opportunity to shape the future of the GOP [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]

When Missouri’s Roy Blunt on Monday said he will not seek re-election in 2022, becoming the fifth Republican senator to announce his retirement, it came as a bit of a surprise.

Blunt was a trusted member of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s inner circle and did not outwardly pick fights with former President Donald Trump, who praised him in an emailed statement on Tuesday saying: “I very much appreciate and respect the career of Senator Roy Blunt.”

To top it off, 71-year-old Blunt was considered someone who would not have had much difficulty being re-elected in deeply Republican Missouri.

But, Blunt said on Monday, times have changed and it sounded as if he has had enough of the deep political polarisation that has set in, especially in Washington.

“The country in the last decade or so has sort of fallen off the edge of too many politicians saying: ‘If you’ll vote for me, I’ll never compromise on anything,’” Blunt told reporters after making his announcement. “That is a philosophy that particularly does not work in a democracy.”

Testing Trump’s influence

To say Blunt and his fellow Senate retirees – Richard Burr of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Pennsylvania, Richard Shelby of Alabama, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania – represent the establishment wing of the Republican Party is an understatement. Between the five, they have a combined 140 years of congressional experience, with Shelby’s tenure in Congress dating back to 1979.

Republican Senators Richard Shelby, left, and Richard Burr, right, have announced they will not seek re-election next year [File: J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

The five retirements put Republicans in a tough electoral spot for next year’s midterm elections when the party out of power in the White House historically makes gains in Congress. There could be a few more Republicans stepping down before long. Republicans are defending 20 Senate seats in November 2022 while Democrats will defend 14, with most, if not all, of their incumbents expected to run again.

The Republican vacancies not only force the party to defend five Senate seats without the advantage of incumbency, but they also exacerbate internal tensions about the direction of the party, at a time when Trump promises to exert as much of his power as possible.

“This will be the first real test of Donald Trump’s influence over, and dominance over, the Republican Party,” former Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock told Al Jazeera.

The success or failure of Republicans to hold these open seats – and pick up others – could prove either Trump’s blessing is the magic touch needed for electoral victory, or, perhaps, cement the theory that pro-Trump candidates cannot win outside of extremely Republican areas.

‘Changing dynamic’

“This is the product of a changing dynamic within the party,” Hancock said. “Generally, the Republican Party is becoming a more populist and nationalist party,” he added, a political direction that is foreign to traditional conservative Republicans.

What it is also shaping into is a party that is becoming more aggressive about attacking its own, hurling criticism against Republicans who have spoken out against Trump or voted against his interests.

Republicans on whom Trump has trained his fire include McConnell, someone who has harshly criticised the former president and has explicitly said he wants the GOP to move on from him.

In response, Trump has labelled McConnell a “RINO” (Republican in name only) and “the most unpopular politician in the country” and has urged his supporters to donate to his own political committee and not the national party because: “RINOS … do nothing but hurt the Republican Party and our great voting base—they will never lead us to Greatness.”

McConnell, and other establishment Republicans, feel Trump’s mindset is a recipe for electoral disaster and would secure the GOP as a minority party for years to come.

But others, including a large number of Trump voters and legislators, strongly believe the former president’s unapologetic give-‘em-hell rhetoric tapped into an energy that is the key to future electoral victories.

The problem is, to date, that strategy has resulted in mixed success.

Yes, Trump won the presidency in 2016, but he failed to repeat that feat in 2020, despite receiving 11 million more votes. He did not win the popular vote in either race. And while Republicans gained seats in the US House, they lost control of the Senate.

That reality is not stopping pro-Trump, anti-establishment candidates, and even an actual Trump – the former president’s daughter-in-law Lara – from thinking about running for Senate, a fact that certainly played into the decisions of some of the retirees.

“The prospect of being challenged in a primary is a deterrent for anybody in office,” Hancock said.

Republicans will try to find electable candidates to replace retiring Senators Pat Toomey, left, and Rob Portman, right [File: Aaron P Bernstein/Reuters]

But ultimately, the GOP’s prospects – and Trump’s long-term influence – hinge on a few important factors: Who winds up facing Democrats in these newly-open races? Will they be candidates in Trump’s mould? Will they be a good fit for their state’s electorate? The answers to these questions will not only offer clues to Republican electoral success next year but will undoubtedly determine the future of the party.

“Can the party nominate candidates who are electable in the general election? We don’t know that yet,” said Hancock. “If they can’t win in [November 2022], that’s going to cause further divisions in the party.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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