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Retiring GOP senators steer clear of primaries — for now

Outgoing senators include Trump critics and legislative deal-makers

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman hasn’t yet decided if he’ll endorse a candidate in the GOP primary to succeed him.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman hasn’t yet decided if he’ll endorse a candidate in the GOP primary to succeed him. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A handful of open Senate seats have drawn a crowd of Republicans vying to replace outgoing GOP senators. Those senators are mostly staying neutral in the primaries — at least for now. 

Alabama’s Richard C. Shelby is so far the only retiring senator to take sides in a primary, backing his former chief of staff, Katie Britt. While others weigh picking a favorite, the primary fields have continued to grow. In some races, vocal backers of Donald Trump are battling each other to succeed senators who have openly criticized the former president or have built reputations as legislative deal-makers. 

Two of the retiring senators, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, voted to convict Trump after his impeachment on charges of inciting an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Burr said last week that he has no plans to endorse a primary candidate in North Carolina, noting that he has not traditionally done so. 

Burr has spoken positively about former Gov. Pat McCrory, who is seeking the GOP nomination against Rep. Ted Budd, whom Trump has endorsed, and former Rep. Mark Walker. 

“I think my quote was ‘He’s the only candidate, looking at polls, that can win a general election,’” Burr said of his remarks to Politico in June. Asked last week if that amounted to an endorsement, Burr said, “No.” 

Thinking about it 

While Burr is staying out of the intraparty fight, Toomey and others are considering jumping in.  

Toomey has not yet decided whether he will endorse a candidate in the Pennsylvania GOP primary. In a brief interview at the Capitol, he said he would make his decision “by carefully evaluating all the factors” but left without elaborating. 

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt said he is currently not planning to endorse in the Republican primary, but he did not rule it out.

“Almost everybody in that primary has been helpful to me. And their supporters have almost all been helpful to me,” Blunt said. “And my current view is that I hope not to have to become involved in the primary.”

Blunt was mum on what might push him to become involved, saying he will “just have to see how it plays out.” 

The GOP primary field in Missouri includes Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, and lawyer Mark McCloskey, who made national headlines last year for brandishing a gun when Black Lives Matter protesters were near his home. Another Senate hopeful is former Gov. Eric Greitens, who left office in 2018 amid multiple scandals, including allegations of sexual misconduct and blackmail, which he denied. 

Asked if there was a concern about Greitens’ candidacy, Blunt said, “I didn’t say that. I said we’ll see how it plays out,” before heading to the Senate floor.  

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman has also not yet decided if he will endorse in the GOP primary to succeed him. 

“I want to be sure that we have a candidate who can win the general election — both the primary and the general election, make sure we can keep Ohio in the red,” Portman said. “Ohio will be among a handful states that will decide the future of the Senate majority and therefore the future of the country.”

Help or hurt? 

Whether an endorsement would help or hurt a candidate likely depends on the state and the nature of the primary. 

“I hope it helps her,” Shelby said of his decision to endorse Britt, whose primary opponents include Trump-backed Rep. Mo Brooks. “But she has to run her own race, and she will do that.”

Britt, who also has the support of VIEW PAC, which backs female GOP candidates, has proved to be a strong fundraiser. 

She launched her campaign in June and by the end of that month had raised $2.2 million. Brooks, who announced his Senate candidacy in March, raised $1.1 million through June 30. Another Senate hopeful, Lynda Blanchard, who served as ambassador to Slovenia under Trump, has loaned her campaign more than $5 million, but she recently indicated she is considering running for governor instead.  

Brooks could benefit from having Trump’s endorsement since loyalty to the former president has become a major dynamic in GOP primaries. That dynamic also raises the question of whether endorsements from senators who criticized Trump would be helpful in 2022 primaries.

Of the states with retiring Republican senators, Trump lost Pennsylvania by 1 point while winning Alabama by 26 points, Missouri by 15 points, Ohio by 8 points and North Carolina by 1 point.

None of the GOP Senate candidates in Pennsylvania responded to multiple requests for comment on whether they would welcome Toomey’s endorsement. In addition to voting to convict Trump, Toomey has also said he should not be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2024.

Trump responded by saying in a statement, “The only reason Senator ‘Gloomy’ Pat Toomey is not running for the Senate in Pennsylvania is that I would not give him an endorsement.” Toomey has also said candidates “will have to run on ideas and principles, not on allegiance to a man.” 

Although Portman has been known to criticize Trump, at least one Ohio Senate candidate said she would welcome his backing. 

Jane Timken, the former state GOP chairwoman, said in a statement, “I have great respect for Senator Portman and would welcome his endorsement. He has been a devoted public servant to Ohioans and his work on important issues like the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act and combating the opioid epidemic have been crucial to the state. But every day I’m focused on earning the most important endorsement there is — the support of Ohio’s primary voters.”

Portman’s wife, Jane, was listed as one of two dozen supporters hosting a fundraiser for Timken on Wednesday. She also co-hosted a fundraiser for Timken in June.

Another contender, state Sen. Matt Dolan, said in a statement that he was less concerned with endorsements than with “ensuring that Ohio’s next Senator continues Rob Portman’s record of commonsense, results-driven conservatism.” Dolan said he was the only Republican in the field to voice support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill that Portman helped negotiate.

The other GOP Senate candidates in Ohio did not respond to requests for comment. 

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