Voices: Three of the last ‘normal’ Republican senators make their last stand

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

This week, the Senate voted to pass the Respect for Marriage Act to officially codify protections for same-sex and interracially-married couples across the country. It came thanks to months of hard negotiating by a bipartisan coterie, including Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, as well as Republicans Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine.

Unsurprisingly, every Democrat present voted for the legislation (Senator Raphael Warnock was back in Georgia fighting Herschel Walker to secure a full term). But along with the three who negotiated it, more than a few Republicans present voted to codify same-sex marriage: Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mitt Romney of Utah, Todd Young of Indiana; and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.

That breakdown is incredibly telling. Of the ten Republicans who voted for the legislation, three – Mr Portman, Mr Blunt and Mr Burr – are retiring at the end of this Congress. In these times, all of them count as what some today would consider “normal Republicans”.

Friend of the newsletter Amy Walter at the Cook Political Report prefers the term “govern-ers” given their propensity to actually care about passing legislation: Mr Burr led the investigation into the Russian interference into the 2016 election; as Rules Chairman, Mr Blunt helped certify the results of the 2020 election; and for his part, Mr Portman helped negotiate last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill with Ms Sinema, a bill that Mr Burr and Mr Blunt voted for.

All of that came despite their conservative pedigrees. All three entered the House of Representatives under the leadership of scorched-earth, right-wing speaker Newt Gingrich. Mr Portman served in the Bush administration as US Trade Representative and Office of Management and Budget. Mr Blunt served as House Majority Whip during the Bush years, and is one of Senate Minority Mitch McConnell’s most loyal footsoldiers. Less edifyingly, Mr Burr made a crude joke in 2016 when he was running for his final term in the Senate about seeing a gun magazine “with a picture of Hillary Clinton on the front of it” and being “shocked” that “it didn’t have a bullseye on it”.

Their relationship to Trumpism was often tenuous; none of the men had the MAGA temperament and all won re-election in 2016 in their states when Trump won. All of them voted to repeal Obamacare, to confirm Donald Trump’s Supreme Court justices (while blocking Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland), and for the Trump tax cuts. Only Mr Burr, who had made his intentions to retire clear early on, voted to convict Mr Trump for his role in January 6.

At the same time, all three will be replaced with decidedly more “MAGA” Senators. Mr Portman will be replaced by JD Vance, whom Mr Trump mocked for “kissing my ass” for his endorsement.” Mr Burr will be replaced by Representative Ted Budd, whom Mr Trump backed, and who objected to the 2020 election results. Meanwhile, Mr Trump decided to be cheeky in Missouri and endorsed “Eric” in the primary – which meant endorsed both Attorney General Eric Schmitt and disgraced former governor Eric Greitens. Ultimately, Mr Schmitt won the primary and general election.

Their departure means that Republicans will have fewer Senators who understand the actual engineering that makes government work. Instead, the party will gain three right-wing firebrands who won their primaries not by showing any particular expertise, but by displaying their fealty to Mr Trump in the most obsequious and oleaginous way possible.

But governing is out of style these days. Many Republicans move up the ranks not through the tedious business of running the country, but through riling up the base. A perfect example in this contrast came during the January 6 election certification: while Mr Blunt was busy trying to make sure the election was certified, his fellow Missourian Josh Hawley continued formally objecting to the results after the riot – this all because of a lie Mr Trump and his allies had brazenly manufactured after his defeat.

Still, there is evidence that some “governing” Republicans will have a future. Again: among those voting for the Respect for Marriage Act was Mr Romney, a devout Latter-Day Saint, who has been a key intermediary for Democrats on everything from gun safety to Covid-19 to infrastructure. Mr Tillis, a former North Carolina state house speaker, helped negotiate criminal justice reform under Mr Trump as well as the gun deal, the most significant piece of legislation on that matter in decades.

As much as Ms Collins’s vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh angered Democrats, she still has partnered with them on multiple occasions. And Ms Murkowski beat back a Trump-endorsed challenger in the state’s new ranked-choice voting system even after she voted to convict Mr Trump, pass the infrastructure bill and confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.