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Roy Blunt assesses the promise and peril of finding legislative consensus

Retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, after throwing a ceremonial first pitch on Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, during the annual Bi-State Softball Showdown between Illinois and Missouri’s legislators at Busch Stadium.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, shown earlier this year, is retiring after nearly 50 years in public life. The Missouri Republican is leaving a substantial political and policy legacy — including his ability to compromise with Democrats in a polarized political environment.

In 2000, Jeff Roe was in a bind.

The GOP political consultant was trying to get then-state Sen. Sam Graves elected to Missouri’s 6th Congressional District seat. But Graves didn’t have the money to run ads in the last weeks of the competitive campaign, and Missouri Republican candidates were in trouble.

After getting discouraging poll numbers, Graves called several major political players to try to solve his predicament. He eventually reached then-Congressman Roy Blunt, who promised to get him the money needed for crucial advertisements. A few days later, Roe received a FedEx package with 176 $1,000 checks, which was more than either he or Graves was expecting.

“Roy Blunt funded the entire Missouri Republican Party for years. Funded redistricting fights,” Roe said. “There’s not anybody close in my 29 years to Roy Blunt and what he’s done for the party.”

Blunt will leave office as a U.S. senator in early January, capping a landmark political career that began when he was just 23. Blunt is spending some of his remaining weeks in office pointing out how working with his ideological opponents yielded results for Missouri and the nation.

That includes work with Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow aimed at expanding community mental health centers — as well as National Institutes of Health funding that benefited places like Washington University and the University of Missouri-Columbia. And he’s proud of his work with members of the Kansas delegation to move a Department of Agriculture facility to Kansas City, as well as his contribution to the expansion of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in north St. Louis.

“I think it’s one of the better things the Senate rules are likely to encourage, reaching out to someone on the other side,” Blunt said in an interview this week with St. Louis Public Radio. “You’re much more likely to have a product that will last than if it’s something one side forces on the other side. And then two years later, somebody else is in control. And they say, ‘We’ve got to change that thing that was totally partisan to start with.’”

Still, Blunt acknowledges that pursuit of bipartisanship often runs into challenges with voters and elected officials who put a premium on ideological purity over compromise. And he said that the politics of Missouri have shifted dramatically since the 1970s and may prompt his successor to take markedly different approaches.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill speaks during Thursday's televised senatorial debate. Oct. 18, 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Blunt forged a good working relationship with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat — even though she ran against his son for governor and her mother ran against his father for state representative. McCaskill notes that they both were political veterans with extensive experience in county and state government before being elected to federal office.

Across the aisle

Blunt’s political resume dwarfs those of many of his contemporaries.

He served as Greene County clerk for 12 years before becoming the first Republican in more than a half-century to be elected secretary of state. After an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1992, Blunt became president of Southwest Baptist University before his election in 1996 to Congress in the southwest Missouri-based 7th District.

Blunt rapidly rose up the ranks in the House, eventually becoming House majority whip and, at least temporarily, House majority leader. But he lost his bid to keep the job permanently in 2006 to John Boehner, who would eventually become speaker of the House. Blunt successfully ran for the Senate in 2010 and won a close reelection bid in 2016. Last year, he chose to not seek a third term.

Even though he never ascended to being the top leader of the House or Senate, Blunt played a major role in countless policy discussions and as a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. He was able to work cohesively with members of the Missouri delegation, he said, including Democratic lawmakers.

“We usually were able to have a unified approach to anything that was going to impact our state specifically,” Blunt said.

(l-r) Robin Carnahan (D) and Roy Blunt (R), minutes before their final debate at The Lodge of Four Seasons resort.
Marshall Griffin
St. Louis Public Radio
Robin Carnahan and Roy Blunt in 2010 before a U.S. Senate race forum in the Lake of the Ozarks. Blunt easily defeated Carnahan in a contentious contest that year but backed her successful nomination to become administrator of the General Services Administration in 2021.

While widely known as a fierce political competitor, Blunt showcased willingness to help former political rivals. For instance: He was supportive of Robin Carnahan’s nomination to lead the General Services Administration — even though the two ran against each other in an often acrimonious Senate contest in 2010.

He was also able to foster a good working relationship with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill when the Democrat was in office. That occurred even though McCaskill ran against Blunt’s son for governor and McCaskill’s mother, Betty, ran against Blunt’s father, Leroy, for state representative.

While noting that they did compete against each other politically, Blunt said McCaskill and her husband came to his father’s funeral in 2016, and he attended her mother’s funeral in 2012.

“One of the things I think that's not very well understood about working with people effectively is you don't spend a lot of time on the things that you know you're never going to agree on,” Blunt said. “You just have to agree with them on that one thing you're working on together. And Sen. McCaskill and I were always able to find a number of things that we were working hard on that we thought were gonna be good for our state.”

In addition to having somewhat similar experiences working in county and state government, the two “believe in going out and actually being in front of the people we work for,” McCaskill said.

“I think there is mutual respect there,” said McCaskill during a 2021 episode of the Politically Speaking podcast. “I think political maturity also had something to do with it. And by the way: That’s very out of vogue now.”

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Tim Bommell
Missouri House Communications
Blunt speaks to members of the Missouri General Assembly. In the past two years, he's voted for bipartisan legislation aimed at bolstering infrastructure, stemming gun violence and protecting same-sex marriages.

Perils of partisanship

Since entering Congress in 1997, Blunt was often at the center of some of the most prominent issues in American politics and policy. He said that establishing the continuity of government after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was likely one of the toughest challenges of his political career.

In addition to dealing with the fallout from the 2008 economic crisis and debates over wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Blunt was in charge of organizing presidential inaugurations for Donald Trump in 2017 and Joe Biden in 2021. Biden’s swearing-in came amid the COVID-19 pandemic and an attempted insurrection that temporarily halted the process for affirming the Democratic president’s win over Trump.

Blunt, who voted to sustain Biden’s wins in Pennsylvania and Arizona, said the inaugurations showcased “the importance of the peaceful transition of power, understanding that our system isn't perfect.”

“The founders didn't promise a perfect union,” Blunt said. “They promised in the Constitution a goal that was a more perfect union.”

Former President Donald Trump gestures towards the crowd on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at a “Save America!” Rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill. “Your boundless love, sacrifice and devotion has finally been rewarded in full,” Trump told his thousands of supporters regarding the overturning of Roe v. Wade the day after the decision. “As a candidate in 2016, I promised to nominate judges and justices who would stand up for the original meaning of the Constitution and who would honestly and faithfully interpret the law as written.”
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Blunt voted in 2021 to sustain President Joe Biden's victories in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Despite this, Blunt said that Trump urged him to run for a third term after he announced his intent to retire. Blunt, who helped organized the 2017 inauguration, said in 2021 he's fostered a "more frank friendship" with Trump than other people.

Even before Trump, Blunt started to notice a change in how political candidates approached politics. He said around 2009 that many candidates began to state in their campaigns, "If I don't get exactly what I want, I won't settle for anything else."

“Which seems to me to be the best possible way to take yourself out of almost every discussion,” Blunt said. “Because almost nobody ever wants to sign up and say, ‘I want to help you get exactly what you want, even if it's not what I want.’ There's not a big group for that. And I think those people have become incredibly uneffective as legislators.

“Maybe they're incredibly effective as spokespersons for a point of view,” he added. “If that's why you're running for the job, I suppose there's part of the job that can be benefited by that.”

Blunt acknowledged there are some issues on which compromise is difficult, such as abortion rights, gun rights and racial equity, when people’s views are attached to strong moral or philosophical convictions. But he said that doesn’t mean people can’t work together even when there’s profound disagreement.

“And you know, we don't have to talk about all the things we don't agree on,” Blunt said.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) speaks to the media on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, at the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Blunt, shown in 2021 in St. Louis, said he's not sure what he's going to do next — but expects to work in some capacity.

End of an era

Blunt was one of several Republicans who came to prominence in the 1970s at a time when Democrats were still a major force in the state. People like Blunt, Kit Bond, John Danforth and John Ashcroft often had to persuade voters who typically backed Democratic candidates to support their statewide endeavors. They also had to work with Democratic officials who controlled the legislature or other statewide offices.

That’s in marked contrast to Blunt’s successor, Eric Schmitt, who was elected this year when the GOP is dominant in statewide and legislative politics. When he’s sworn in on Jan. 3, Schmitt will be in the minority for the first time in his political career.

Blunt said that running for statewide office in the 1980s required a much different approach than candidates employ today. In 1984, for instance, he stressed his experience working as a county elections official in making a case for why he should be the first GOP secretary of state in decades.

“And then eventually, they find out that you're a Republican,” Blunt said. “But you need to have him pretty persuaded that you're a person that can do this job.”

Statewide politics then required a different messaging approach than what has worked for Republicans in the present day, he said.

“Because rather than talking about some national position of your party and how it related to everything you did, you were talking about the job you did and how you were doing your best to make that job better.”

Blunt said he isn’t sure what he’s going to do after he steps aside from public life. But he plans to continue to work.

“I like to work,” Blunt said. “I don't have enough hobbies not to work. And my wife tells me I definitely need to work. So I'm looking forward to it. And I'm going to get serious about that on Jan. 4.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.