‘You’re screwed’: Romney’s exit threatens a collapse of Senate’s middle

Should some or all of them leave Congress next year, it would mark a repeat of the 2014 and 2018 cycles when a drove of red-state Democrats were ousted or retired. The losses of former moderate Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly still sting among the party’s red-state survivors.

But it’s not just Democrats. A quintet of deal-making GOP senators retired last year, and some were replaced by more conservative or pugnacious senators.

That’s certainly a possibility when it comes to Romney’s seat. Utah could elect an establishment Republican like Gov. Spencer Cox or a combative conservative like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). Romney said he’ll be neutral in the race to replace him but that he doesn’t “think we’re going to get someone off the wall.”

Sinema, if she runs, would face a three-way race against Congressional Progressive Caucus member Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and a hard-right Republican like Kari Lake or Blake Masters. If Manchin retires, Democrats would almost certainly cede the seat to the GOP, which faces a primary between Gov. Jim Justice and the more conservative Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.).

“With the sort of populist phase we’re going through right now, you may have fewer [centrists] coming out of primaries,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another bipartisan collaborator.

Manchin and Tester’s reelection wins in 2018 were impressive given the deep-red hues of their states. There are some other success stories for the centrist crew: Two moderate GOP senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have withstood challenges from a Democrat and Trump-backed Republican, respectively, in the last two cycles.

Now, it’s the Democratic caucus’ turn. There, some worry that Sinema and Manchin joining Romney in retirement could shrink a centrist group that swelled during the last Congress down to the size of a Senate phone booth, with negative consequences.

“This place functions the best when you have individuals on both sides of the aisle that are willing to work across the aisle together. And I think that’s true for the three of them,” said Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Sinema’s home-state colleague.

Still, the legislative filibuster and its 60-vote threshold remain intact — and that could mean new members step into the bipartisan breach. The question is whether that means collaboration only on essential government functions like keeping the lights on and raising the debt ceiling or whether there’s a bipartisan desire to do more.

“If that gets hollowed out, working across the aisle, nothing will get done. It’s not like over in the House, where if you had the majority, you can still push it through,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of GOP leadership who often supports bipartisan compromises. “I don’t know how we function without that, whoever the personalities are.”

Capito said she did not believe Manchin, Sinema and Romney would all necessarily follow the same path or were coordinating at all: “It’s not a groupthink there. I think they’re all [operating with] three separate different ideas and issues as to where they want to go.”

Romney’s decision probably predates Manchin’s and Sinema’s by months. Manchin is looking at an end-of-year choice, which would be just before his state’s January filing deadline. Romney has urged Manchin not to seek the White House on a third-party ticket.

“I encouraged him not to run [for president]. I tell Joe that in my opinion, him running would only serve to elect Donald Trump,” Romney said.

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