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Sen. Rob Portman's retirement may be bad for Joe Biden's agenda

Republicans' being on the defense doesn't end well for bipartisanship.
Photo illustration of President Joe Biden juxtaposed over a grid of blue and red dots where three of the red dots are moving away.
Can bipartisanship even make it past this year, let alone until the midterms?Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

First, an apology: We are less than a month into 2021, not even a week into President Joe Biden's term, and yet somehow this column is already about next year's midterm elections. No one is more sorry than I am, but I beg you to blame Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, not me.

Portman announced Monday that he won't be running for re-election in 2022, which came as a big shock to the political commentariat. His "moderate" reputation got a pretty decent skewering from MSNBC's Steve Benen, so I don't feel the need to repeat. But what I will say is that Portman's looming retirement means it might be even less likely that Republicans will offer up concessions for Biden's agenda in the meantime.

Monday's announcement makes three Republican senators who've said they won't stand for re-election next year — Portman, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina. That means three swing states will have open Senate seats in 2022. It was already going to be a rough election for Republicans on defense. Not only do they have more seats to try to keep, but they'll also be doing it without former President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket.

Trump's absence could be a blessing or a curse in each of the states, two of which he won last year. Candidates to succeed Toomey will face an electorate that has gone hard for Democrats in the last two cycles after a surprise win for Trump in 2016. Burr's North Carolina seat will hinge on the candidates who choose to run — Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham only narrowly lost last year to Sen. Thom Tillis even though several scandals emerged late in the race.

Portman's seat may prove to be a bellwether — his fellow Ohioan in the Senate is Sherrod Brown, a pro-union liberal Democrat who easily won re-election in 2018. On the flip side, the state also voted for Trump last year, by almost the exact same margin it did for Brown.

All told, it's likely that we will see more retirement announcements from the GOP ahead of the midterms. Richard Shelby of Alabama will be 88 years old if he runs again. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the oldest member of the Republican caucus, could say goodbye rather than seek an eighth term, which would take him to age 95.

Meanwhile, other members face strong potential challenges — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is term-limited and could take on Sen. John Kennedy — while Republicans may find trouble attracting strong opponents to go after Democratic-held seats — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey won't run against the newly sworn-in Sen. Mark Kelly, he announced Sunday.

That sets us up for a replay of McConnell's playbook from 2009 to 2014 — make sure nothing can get done in the Senate.

These are all terrible scenarios for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose team has to hold 20 seats and flip one if it wants any chance to take back control of the Senate in two years.

That sets us up for a replay of McConnell's playbook from 2009 to 2014 — make sure nothing can get done in the Senate, depriving the Democratic candidates of any deliverables to campaign on. It's deeply cynical, and it has proven entirely effective before, especially with the power of the filibuster behind Republicans in the minority.

McConnell spent the last week holding up transferring power in this Senate to the Democrats to protect that goal. As of Monday afternoon, he was still refusing to sign off on the organizing resolution that will delineate committee membership in the evenly split chamber until Democrats promise not to get rid of the legislative filibuster until 2023. He only yielded Monday evening after two Democratic senators went on record as saying they won't vote to get rid of the filibuster. It's not in the power-sharing agreement, but it's clear that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer lacks the votes to move forward on legislation without Republicans — for now.

The Republicans who step up to fill the swing state seats that McConnell will need to retake the majority are likely to vary pretty wildly in temperament and tone, but they will all have one thing in common: running against whatever Biden supports. And in blocking the Biden agenda from passing through Congress, McConnell would again be giving these hypothetical campaigns more fuel to add to the "Washington is bad, and government is broken" sales pitches that won him the majority before. What incentive does he have to let Democrats succeed with that in mind?

Now, will Portman, Toomey and Burr find any sort of freedom in these next two years to break away from the rest of the caucus? It's possible — unlikely, based on their voting records, but possible. Portman in particular has a chance both to help get Biden's proposed Covid-19 stimulus package through the Senate as a member of a bipartisan working group trying to fashion a deal and to convict Trump in his impeachment trial.

But does that mean Biden's priorities will suddenly have a clearer shot of passing the Senate? Not if McConnell has anything to say about it.