JEFFERSON CITY — Flanked by nearly three dozen state legislators, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt became the first major Republican candidate to declare a bid for Missouri's U.S. Senate seat in 2010.
Making his second of four planned stops around the state, Blunt, a Springfield resident, spoke in the House Lounge of the Capitol, portraying himself as a firewall to a potential Democratic filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Democrats hold 58 of 100 U.S. Senate seats, with the outcome of a closely contested race in Minnesota still pending.
Because the Missouri seat is being vacated by Republican Kit Bond, a victory for Democrats could give the party the 60 necessary votes they would need to end debate on any legislation. Bond, who has served in the U.S. Congress' upper chamber since 1987, surprised many by announcing he was retiring on Jan. 8.
"Seven weeks ago, the furthest thing from my mind was running for the Senate," Blunt said. "When Sen. Bond announced that he was not going to run, my first thought was that the 41 seats in the Senate are so important, so critical that we maintain that last balance in the system that otherwise is gone if the Senate slips to a filibuster-proof number."
Blunt served as Missouri's Secretary of State before being elected to the U.S. House from the state's 7th Congressional District in 1996. From 2003 until last month, he was the Republican Whip, the second-highest-ranking member of his party. He is the father of Missouri's previous governor, Matt Blunt.
Blunt said he has sought bipartisanship during his eight terms as a representative. He was critical of current Democratic Congressional leadership, which passed a $787 billion economic stimulus bill last week with the support of only three Republicans in the Senate. After referring to an "overreaching liberal monopoly in Congress," Blunt said the stimulus package would not work and would be an "impediment to recovery."
Seven Democrats voted no on the stimulus bill.
"The bipartisan vote was on our side, and yet the Democrats were easily able to pass a bill that had everything in there they wanted to do sometime in the past 10 years," Blunt said.
When asked how large an ideal stimulus package should be, Blunt said he wanted it to be "as small as possible," while defending his vote in favor of a $700 billion infusion of money to some of the nation's largest financial institutions last year.
Blunt said he voted for the plan known officially as the Troubled Assets Relief Program because then-President George W. Bush and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson warned of an imminent collapse of the country's financial structure without it. But he said he voted against releasing the second half of the funds because the initial funds didn't have the desired effect.
"I wound up in the room where the secretary of the treasury came up and told leaders that if we didn't do something within the next 14 days to three weeks, the financial structure of country was going to collapse," he said. "They didn't invest (the money) in a way that relieved the credit crunch the way we were told it was going to, and I was disappointed by that."
Blunt made his announcement at Thursday's news conference with more than 30 state representatives and senators standing behind him. House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, introduced him. He said he has reached out to other Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, seeking to avoid a contentious primary fight similar to the one between Republicans during the 2008 gubernatorial race.
In that election, Steelman was defeated by 14,000 votes by then-U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, following a tight and expensive race. Hulshof, a Columbia resident, lost the general election to Democrat Jay Nixon by 22 percentage points and was defeated in traditional Republican strongholds in southwest Missouri, where Steelman is from. Blunt said he was confident that 2010 would not be similar to 2008 in that regard.
"I think this is a race we win if we all come together," he said. "I don't think if there is a primary it will be the same primary we had last time. We have enough time to make this a primary about issues. I believe my view on those issues and my record on those issues is where Missourians are."
Talent has reportedly declined to enter the Senate race. Steelman has neither confirmed nor denied any interest in the vacancy. Speculation about potential Republican candidates has also focused on Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and U.S. Rep. Sam Graves.
The only other mainstream-party politician tohave declared interest in the race is Democrat Robin Carnahan, Missouri's Secretary of State. She officially announced her intent to run for the vacant seat Feb. 3.
Carnahan was not available for comment Thursday, but the Missouri Democratic Party issued a statement criticizing the economic policies Blunt has supported in Congress.
"Congressman Blunt has been a driving force behind George W. Bush's failed economic policies and Congress' reckless spending," party chairman Craig Hosner stated. "We'll never get the change we need here in Missouri if we keep sending back the same old gang with the same failed ideas back to Washington."
Blunt began Thursday at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis and planned to make stops in Cape Girardeau and Carthage later in the day.