After retirement announcement, Roy Blunt talks GOP unity, Greitens’ criticism and Trump’s influence

Austin Huguelet
Springfield News-Leader

Hours after announcing he would not seek re-election next year, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt walked into a press conference at the airport Monday and told reporters to let the questions fly.

Over the next 20 minutes, Blunt spoke at length on his decision to retire from elected office and what he wants to see in a successor, his relationship with former President Donald Trump and his thoughts on Eric Greitens.

Roy Blunt speaks to the media about his decision not to run again for the US Senate in 2022 at the Springfield Regional Airport on March 8, 2021

He also answered some lighter questions, including one about which of his four elected offices he enjoyed most.

Here are some of the highlights.

On why he’s retiring

The first question Blunt fielded was the obvious one: Why retire now?

He’s currently the No. 4 Republican in the Senate, which would give him significant sway if the party retakes the chamber next year, and most observers saw him as a shoe-in for a third term.

Blunt, 71, said it all came down to time: Another six-year term in the Senate was just too long.

"If this was a 4-year decision rather than a 6-year decision, it might have been a bigger decision," he said.

He preemptively dismissed any suggestion that he was worried about losing.

“I think it would have been a great year for me,” he said. “I felt good about getting elected. I felt less good about going from 26 years in the Congress to 32 years in the Congress and maybe eliminating the other things I might get a chance to do when I leave the Congress.”

On Eric Greitens

Despite Blunt’s answer on the previous question, he also got one about whether his retirement had anything to do with Eric Greitens.

The firebrand former Missouri governor has been criticizing Blunt in conservative media recently as insufficiently pro-Trump and suggested on the radio last week he might even challenge Blunt in the primary.

Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens

Greitens has his own issues less than three years removed from the allegations of sexual misconduct and campaign finance violations that drove him from office.

Despite that, polling put him within shouting distance of Blunt as recently as December.

But Blunt grinned widely as he listened to the question, and then dismissed Greitens as just another critic.

“I wouldn't want to elevate anybody or denigrate anybody by talking about them,” he said. “It's a free country and anybody who's going to say negative things about me has a really big group of people that they're a part of.

“My guess is I have more bad things said about me by 9 o'clock every morning than most people do in their whole life. And I'm OK with that.”

On Trump

He got one more question about the forgone primary.

Another reporter asked whether the possibility of former President Donald Trump weighing in on the race played a factor in Blunt’s decision.

Since leaving the White House, Trump has promised to recruit primary challengers against anyone he sees as against him.

U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) depart the White House on Aug. 30, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Greitens appeared to be eager to capitalize on that dynamic when he criticized Blunt on right-wing TV for saying Trump played a role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and that Trump made a mistake in skipping his Democratic successor's inauguration.

Blunt shrugged off any suggestion of bad blood, though.

“The president and I had a good relationship,” he said. “It really started, interestingly, about a month before he was sworn in four years ago. I chaired that swearing-in as I did again this time and he and I have a good relationship, and he would have been for me (in 2022).”

On what’s next for him

Blunt also took a question about his plans for the future and he assured reporters that he’ll stay busy doing something.

“You know, I've basically had a full-time job since I was about 17 and I've never had a day that I didn't have a place to go to work,” he said. “It would be hard for me to think that in two years I'd want to not have things to do.”

He said he doesn’t know what exactly he’ll do after leaving the Senate, though, and said the Senate remains his focus for now.

He said his work on increasing funding for health research, expanding mental health services and improving national security all still need support and promised to “take everything I've learned in the last 24 years and make the most of it in the next two years.”

He also sounded an optimistic note on the future for the country as a whole.

“We're at a moment now where if we make the right decisions, really good things could happen for us,” he said, “and I intend to be part of that the next two years and hope to be where I can continue to give advice.”

On the future of the GOP

Blunt was equally optimistic about his party.

Recent electoral history has not been especially kind to it: Republicans lost the House in 2018, the White House in 2020 and the Senate in January after the Georgia run-offs.

Party officials are also divided over how to move forward in a post-Trump era — and whether they should move on from Trump at all.

But Blunt said he's not worried about unity or election prospects.

He said far-reaching Democratic proposals like President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid bill are already bringing Republicans together — none of them voted for the package — and he predicted that the American people will soon see the wisdom in their opposition.

President Joe Biden speaks about efforts to combat COVID-19, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

He acknowledged that the aid bill is popular now, but said that would fade once people "unravel" it and notice how much of the spending isn't directly related to fighting the virus itself.

"The Republican Party will be just fine," he said.

On how to be a good senator

Blunt then got a question from the News-Leader on what advice he’d offer the many Republicans considering a run to succeed him.

He replied that he’d urge them to learn compromise and focus more on delivering for constituents than drawing ideological lines in the sand.

The advice was effectively a call to emulate his own work as a staunch conservative who nevertheless notched many accomplishments with support from Democrats, including a marquee mental health initiative co-sponsored by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan.

“I think the country in the last decade or so has sort of fallen off the edge with too many politicians saying, 'If you vote for me I'll never compromise on anything’ — and that's a philosophy that particularly does not work in a democracy,” Blunt said.

Roy Blunt speaks to the media about his decision not to run again for the US Senate in 2022 at the Springfield Regional Airport on March 8, 2021

“You've got to see who's there to work with you,” he added. “Democracy is not for sissies, and you don't get everything you want every time you want and in fact, if you are, there's probably something wrong with you.

“So that'd be my advice: Think about how we want to move our country, think about the opportunities we have, how to move in that direction, and don't spend a lot of time talking about what you'll never do.”

On his favorite job in politics

Blunt also took a question on which elected office he’s enjoyed the most in his more than four decades in politics.

He answered it before this reporter finished asking it.

“(Missouri) Secretary of State,” he said.

Blunt said he effectively spent 12 years training to be the state’s chief elections official as Greene County Clerk and enjoyed the job’s other responsibilities with state archives, business registration and securities investigations.

“And you make so many decisions that you don't have to talk to anybody else about,” he said. “You say 'Here's what we're going to do and here's how we're going to do it differently.’”

Then-Secretary of State Roy Blunt announces a new program to fight illiteracy in this 1989 News-Leader file photo.

Blunt said he also worked well with the legislature despite serving in the 1980s and 1990s when Democrats were in charge.

“We had great luck in that office,” he said. “We built a new State Archives building, and I love the history of our state, so that was fun for me.”

Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at ahuguelet@news-leader.com.