One of Capitol Hill’s master strategists faces his toughest political challenge yet

Republican incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt, right, speaks alongside Democratic challenger Jason Kander during a debate in Missouri’s race for U.S. Senate on Sept. 30. Blunt, a veteran lawmaker who has spent nearly 20 years in Congress, is locked in a close race for re-election against Kander.
Republican incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt, right, speaks alongside Democratic challenger Jason Kander during a debate in Missouri’s race for U.S. Senate on Sept. 30. Blunt, a veteran lawmaker who has spent nearly 20 years in Congress, is locked in a close race for re-election against Kander. AP

By the time it dawned on the Senate Democratic leadership that their party had been out-negotiated by Roy Blunt, it was too late.

President Barack Obama had requested $1.9 billion in emergency funds to fight the Zika virus, and Blunt, a veteran Republican lawmaker from Missouri, had bargained his Democratic colleagues down to $1.1 billion.

The compromise legislation Blunt had crafted sailed through the Senate in May with almost unheard-of bipartisan support, 89-8. Not a single Democrat voted against it.

The win reinforced Blunt’s reputation on Capitol Hill as the consummate dealmaker – the quiet fixer with the Midwestern twang who knows how to get things done, even in a deeply divided Congress.

It’s a reputation Blunt is counting on to help him win a tough race for re-election in November.

But as it turned out, Blunt had done his job a little too well: Democratic leaders fretted that he had squeezed so many concessions from their side that they barely had any wiggle room left when it came time to reconcile the Senate-passed bill with the House of Representatives version, which allocated just $622 million for Zika.

So Democrats took a hard line. They refused to consider anything less than the $1.1 billion they’d agreed to with Blunt. After a week of intense talks with the House, hope died for a quick deal – in no small part because Democrats refused to budge on funding levels.

The stalemate dragged on for three months.

As the partisan bickering escalated, Blunt got busy talking to federal officials, House Republicans and Senate Democrats, by phone and in person, trying to find a way out of the impasse.

It was vintage Roy Blunt, his friends in Congress say.

When gridlock hits, “he just puts his head down and keeps moving through it,” said Republican Sen. Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia, who served with Blunt in the House before joining him in the Senate.

Master legislator or Washington insider?

Blunt understands better than most that what counts as progress on Capitol Hill rarely is measured in leaps and bounds, but fits and starts, said Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma.

“We have some members of Congress, if they played football they’d throw for the touchdown every time,” said Cole, a longtime Blunt ally. “But Roy Blunt is the guy who will get you first downs.”

In Ozark language, said John Ashcroft, the former Republican U.S. attorney general from Missouri, “he’s a get-’er-done person.”

Now, after nearly two decades in Washington, Blunt’s strengths as a legislator – his years of experience, his leadership roles in both chambers, his relationships with lobbyists and corporate bigwigs – may have become political liabilities.

His Democratic opponent, Jason Kander, a 35-year-old Afghanistan War veteran, is trying to cast 66-year-old Blunt as an out-of-touch Washington insider.

Blunt managed to shrug off the insider label in past election cycles. It could be harder for him to shake when he’s sharing a ballot with Donald Trump, who uses his outsider status to mobilize voters fed up with business as usual in Washington.

Blunt, who has endorsed Trump, bristles at the suggestion that voters’ low opinion of Congress could hurt him in November. As recently as last month, a Gallup poll showed 76 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.

In an interview, Blunt rattled off a list of bipartisan bills he helped pass in the Senate to boost funding for medical research, expand access to mental health services and fund havens for child abuse victims.

“It’s not impossible to get things done” in Washington, Blunt said. “It’s a challenge to get things done.”

From dairy farm to Capitol Hill

Blunt grew up on a dairy farm in southwest Missouri. In 1972, he was teaching history at a high school in Marshfield, Missouri, when he volunteered for Ashcroft’s congressional campaign.

Ashcroft asked Blunt whether his pickup had a full tank, and when Blunt said yes, Ashcroft recruited him as his driver.

“I was 30 years old, just had turned 30. He was younger yet than I,” Ashcroft recalled in an interview. “But we both felt what I call an American calling. You do what you can to shape the way in which you live. Tom Paine said, ‘You have it in your power to make the world over.’ ”

Ashcroft lost that race, but Blunt’s political career took off. He went on to serve as Greene County clerk and Missouri secretary of state, the same post that his opponent, Kander, now holds.

In 1996, Blunt ran for an open House seat and won with 65 percent of the vote.

His star rose rapidly in the House, where Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, then majority whip, handpicked him to serve as his chief deputy. Blunt went on to become majority whip, then acting majority leader, then minority whip.

His job was to make sure his party had the votes to push through its agenda. In contrast with DeLay’s reputation as the “hammer” for his strong-armed enforcement of party discipline, Blunt was known as the more even-tempered of the pair, a tough but fair strategist with a head for details.

“He knew each individual member, their personal stories, their likes and dislikes, what buttons to push or what other people might influence them,” said Cole, who served on Blunt’s whip team.

In 2003, Blunt faced one of his toughest challenges in passing a bill to create the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.

He knew some members would vote no and run out, so he deployed his whip team to stand by all the exits from the House floor.

“He laid us out like an army on the floor,” Cole said. “He had a pretty good idea what members would use which door.”

Blunt also mobilized lobbyists to help him sway House members, even letting them set up a “war room” in his suite of offices in the U.S. Capitol.

The highly controversial vote began at 3 a.m. and lasted for three hours. Missouri Rep. Jo Ann Emerson voted “no,” then hid on the Democratic side of the floor, and now-Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas managed to escape Blunt’s dragnet by voting “no” early and dashing out. In the end, Blunt and other GOP leaders pressured Emerson and another Republican into switching their votes from no to yes and the bill passed, handing President George W. Bush a big victory a year before his re-election.

Ties to lobbyists

As Blunt’s prominence grew, so did his network in Washington.

At least 46 of the staffers Blunt hired over the years either had worked as lobbyists before they worked for him or became lobbyists after leaving his employ, according to public records.

Blunt’s wife, Abigail, also is a lobbyist, as are all three of his adult children.

Lobbyists have helped Blunt coax legislation through Congress. They’ve also been at the center of the most embarrassing moments of his career.

In 2002, a year before he married Abigail, Blunt tried to tuck a provision that would have benefited her client, Philip Morris, into a homeland security bill. The measure would have protected Philip Morris’ profits by making it harder to sell tobacco online and to smuggle cigarettes. Embarrassed, the Republican leadership quickly took out the language.

Blunt defended the rider as “good policy.” But the optics were bad. In addition to his future wife’s work for Philip Morris, Blunt’s son Andrew lobbied for Philip Morris in Missouri and the company had donated tens of thousands of dollars to political committees affiliated with Blunt.

Blunt came under scrutiny again in 2005, when The Washington Post revealed that he and DeLay had flown at least 140 times on corporate jets owned by companies with legislative issues before Congress. Among the planes’ owners were shipping and telecom companies – all donors to Blunt.

Blunt also accepted $8,500 in contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose political corruption case embroiled Capitol Hill in 2006. Blunt gave the money to charity after Abramoff pleaded guilty.

Blunt says he’s “tried to be very careful” about his connections to lobbyists. “I don’t talk to my family about legislative things,” he said.

“Now if somebody, some former member or former staffer wants to come in and talk to my staff or me about legislation, I think we almost always do that,” he said. “But we prioritize talking to Missourians before that.”

A shift to the Senate

In 2005, Blunt’s mentor DeLay stepped down as House majority leader after being indicted on felony charges involving campaign finance violations. Blunt ran to replace DeLay as leader, promising reform. He lost to John Boehner.

After helping to pass the Wall Street bailout in 2008, Blunt resigned as whip.

That same year, a shift in Missouri politics boded well for a Republican contemplating a statewide race: Missourians voted for GOP presidential candidate John McCain over Barack Obama, defying their state’s status as a bellwether with an apparent shift to the right. The next year, after longtime Missouri Sen. Kit Bond announced his retirement, Blunt made his move.

He defeated Democrat Robin Carnahan handily, 54 to 41 percent.

Blunt moved across the Capitol into Harry Truman’s old Senate offices. He joined the Republican leadership team and nabbed seats on the powerful Intelligence, Commerce and Appropriations committees.

Blunt has tackled several issues of parochial interest during his six years in the Senate, including work to protect military jet production in St. Louis and flood protection in Kansas City.

He also led a successful bipartisan effort to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health by $2 billion, which could mean additional grant money for research institutions such as the University of Kansas Medical Center.

An amendment he sponsored that would have given employers the right to deny insurance coverage on religious grounds drew fire from women’s groups and praise from social conservatives. It failed, by 51-48.

Blunt’s most recent legislative victory was the inclusion of $1.1 billion to combat Zika in a stopgap spending bill. Both chambers finally signed off in late September, but not before Kander had taken advantage of the delay to attack Blunt, as a lead negotiator, for not nailing down a deal sooner.

“The safest thing to do in politics is not to do anything,” Blunt said. “If you’re running for re-election, you don’t wrap your arms around the Zika crisis and say, ‘I’m gonna solve this,’ even though I can see that it’s got lots of difficulties – unless you’re me. So I think understanding the system is not nearly as important as being willing to take a chance over and over again to try to make the system work.”

‘It’s time a lot of ’em go home’

Blunt remains relatively popular among Missouri voters. Forty-five percent gave him a positive job rating in a recent poll by Monmouth University. He visits the state often, frequently with reporters in tow.

Voters see Blunt as reliably conservative on issues like guns, religious freedom, rolling back government regulations and repealing Obamacare.

At the same time, some Missouri Republicans remain angry at Blunt for his role in the 2012 Senate campaign between Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and then-U.S. Rep. Todd Akin. Akin’s remark that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy hit the state like a sledgehammer, and some national Republicans wanted Akin to leave the race.

So did Blunt. He organized in-state opposition to Akin. He helped draft a letter signed by four former Republican senators from Missouri, and himself, urging Akin to quit.

Akin lost the race to McCaskill. Some state Republicans still blame Blunt for that defeat and have had a hard time stirring grass-roots enthusiasm for his candidacy.

“There is so much disgust for the status quo in (conservative) circles,” said former Missouri state Sen. Chuck Purgason, a tea partier who ran against Blunt in the 2010 Senate primary.

Purgason plans to cast his ballot for a third-party candidate rather than Blunt, whom he sees as part of the Washington establishment.

“I hold every politician to whether they represent my values and whether they do what they say about curbing the deficit, and I think all of them have been up there too long,” Purgason said. “They’ve all lost touch with how it is in the real world. I think a lot of people feel the same way, that it’s time a lot of ’em go home.”

If enough Missouri voters agree, that’s bad news for Blunt.

Blunt argues that his years in Washington haven’t changed him. That there’s still so much he can do for Missouri, for his country. That he’s still, at his core, the same guy who showed up in his pickup to volunteer for a long-shot congressional campaign 45 years ago, with a full tank and a calling.

Dave Helling of The Kansas City Star and Jessica Campisi of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

Blunt by the numbers

88.6 lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union, out of 100. The rating is based on how closely a lawmaker’s voting record hews to Republican principles.

71 percent lifetime rating by the Club for Growth, a right-wing advocacy group that tracks how members of Congress vote on economic legislation.

46 staffers who worked for Blunt on Capitol Hill who later worked as lobbyists or were hired by Blunt after working as lobbyists.

4 members of Blunt’s immediate family who have worked as lobbyists: his wife, Abigail, sons Matt and Andrew, and daughter Amy.

44,400 people who follow Blunt on Twitter. Missouri’s Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, has more than 128,100 followers.

$4.6 million Blunt’s net worth in 2014, according to Open Secrets, up from $223,003 in 2004, when he served in the House. The average senator’s net worth is $10.2 million.

73 earmarks totaling $113 million sponsored by Blunt from 2008 to 2010, before Congress banned them, according to Open Secrets. By comparison, former Missouri Sen. Kit Bond sponsored 387 for $1.2 billion during the same period.

50 percent of Blunt’s 38 bills and resolutions had both Democratic co-sponsors and Republican co-sponsors in 2015, prompting GovTrak to rank him fourth highest among Senate committee chairs and ranking members for writing bipartisan legislation.

195 bills and resolutions co-sponsored with other members of Congress in 2015. This made Blunt one of the top five Republican senators who showed a willingness to work across the aisle that year, according to GovTrak.

11 bills he sponsored that were signed into law over his 20-year career.

143 bills he co-sponsored with colleagues that became law since he first came to Washington in 1997.

4.4 percent Votes he missed in 2015, or 15 of 339 votes. Only 13 senators had worse voting records last year.