WASHINGTON — The Senate isn’t what it used to be.
For evidence, consider the case of Senator Ben Sasse, the Nebraska Republican with four years to go in his second term who is seeking the presidency of the University of Florida. His looming departure makes him the latest lawmaker to prematurely bail out of the institution once considered the pinnacle of American political life outside the presidency.
Joining him on the way out the door this year are some of the most savvy and experienced legislators on the Republican side — Roy Blunt of Missouri, Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania — all pretty much in the prime of their careers by Senate age standards. Two more senior senators, Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, age 82, and Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, 88, are also retiring.
On top of those losses, Senate Republicans could not entice several Republican governors to run for Senate this year, even though they would have been strong contenders for election next month, candidacies that would have boosted Republican chances of capturing a majority in the chamber that is now very much in play.
Senators tick off a litany of frustrations: Their constituents are difficult, the travel is grueling, fund-raising is joyless and omnipresent, the threat of primaries is a pain and they are constantly pestered by the press. Republicans have the added burden of navigating treacherous waters where they risk blowback from the base if they don’t profess sufficient fealty to MAGA tenets and former President Donald J. Trump and draw scalding criticism from the opposing side if they don’t show sufficient disdain for Mr. Trump and his supporters.
“Few believe bare-knuckled politics are a substitute for principled governing,” he said about his constituents back home. “And does anyone doubt that many on both the right and the left now salivate for more of these radical tactics? The people despise us all,” he said, posing this question: “Would anything be lost if the Senate didn’t exist?”
A group of Republican governors seemed to consider that question in recent months and answer “not much” when it came to their own political ambitions. Despite fervent pleas from Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, and many other Republicans, four governors considered top Senate candidates — Phil Scott of Vermont, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire — all passed on running this year, even though the midterm environment started out favoring Republicans.
The decision by Governor Sununu was particularly upsetting to Republicans since he was rated as by far the strongest challenger to Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, who had been considered vulnerable but is now in position to win a second term and help her party hang onto its majority.
Governors have always chafed at running and serving in the Senate after their experience as state executives provided them more leeway and authority than working in a creaky gang of 100.
But in the past, the Senate was still seen as a springboard to national prominence and a possible presidential run, and many governors chose to give it a try despite misgivings. Thirteen former governors currently sit in the Senate and another may join them if Pete Ricketts, the outgoing governor of Nebraska, ends up in Mr. Sasse’s seat under an appointment until the 2024 elections. Mr. McConnell, in an interview with CNN, made it clear that Mr. Ricketts is his preferred choice.
The refusal of those governors does not mean no one wants in to serve in the chamber. Far from it. Across the nation, candidates are spending tens of millions of dollars clamoring for admission. But in place of those governors who refused to run, Republicans got lesser-known and more problematic candidates such as hard-right hopefuls Blake Masters in Arizona and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, Republicans who are less likely to win and who are far less likely to be Senate deal-makers of the sort who are leaving.
That prospect is vexing for those who remain.
“Those are capable legislators who have done a lot of good in their time,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, lamenting the departing lawmakers. “Although we have different ideologies, priorities and political values, we have gotten to yes on dozens of bills between us.”
The race for the exits is the best evidence yet that the political and policy allures of the Senate are rapidly diminishing.