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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Missouri Republicans ponder the impact of crowded and testy primaries

Posters for U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, hang on the wall of a convention room.
Dominick Williams
for the Kansas City Beacon
Potential voters listen to U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, at a pancake breakfast during Lincoln Days in Kansas City.

Before diving into his final Missouri Republican Party Lincoln Days speech as the state’s chief executive, Gov. Mike Parson alluded to how his party’s dominance in elections also created sizable divisions.

In some respects, GOP victories in statewide and legislative elections presented a double-edged sword: Without electoral expansion throughout rural and suburban parts of the state, Parson never would have been able to enact consequential policy initiatives such as cutting taxes and banning most abortions. But the big wins also created bitter factionalism both within the General Assembly and in crowded primaries for statewide offices.

“I'm telling you Republicans need to stay united,” Parson said at Lincoln Days last weekend. “We will win the governorship. But we don't have to destroy one another to win.”

Three candidates for governor, who took part in an often testy forum on Saturday, are stockpiling cash for ad campaigns that could malign each other in the runup to the Aug. 6 primary. Some candidates are explicitly running on the belief that party’s leaders, like Parson, have betrayed GOP values on spending and taxation.

“All of that’s going to change when we start kicking over the apple carts of the special few who have benefited from all of this government spending over the past five years,” said state Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, who is running for governor. “The reckoning is coming, folks, it’s happening in just a few months.”

Divisive primaries have hurt the party before, most notably in 1992 and 2008 when Democrats ended up recapturing the governorship and some statewide offices after GOP victories in previous cycles.

But those wins came at a time when Democrats still had electoral appeal in rural and suburban counties. And with former President Donald Trump likely to win Missouri handily and provide a boost to candidates down the ballot, many GOP officials at Lincoln Days aren’t worried about what’s to come in November.

“We are a red state even though we have a couple of blue areas. We will keep all statewide offices Republican,” said state Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville. “We will keep the supermajority in the House and Senate. And we are on a roll in Missouri.”

From left: Missouri Sen. Bill Eigel; Joplin businessman Chris Wright; Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft; and Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe shake hands following the Governor's Forum during the Lincoln Days event.
Dominick Williams
for the Kansas City Beacon
From left: Missouri Sen. Bill Eigel, Joplin businessman Chris Wright, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, and Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe shake hands following the Governor's Forum during the Lincoln Days event Saturday in Kansas City.

Blessing and curse

During the Lincoln Days weekend, several speakers noted that Missouri Republicans weren’t always the ascendant party in the state. Up until 2017, Democrats held most of Missouri’s statewide offices and the GOP didn’t take over control of the General Assembly until the early 2000s.

“The reason we're now in the majority is due to the steadfast support and good judgment of the Republicans in this room, and having honorable candidates and public servants,” said Missouri Republican Party Chairman Nick Myers.

Another subtle reminder of the party’s past difficulties occurred on Friday during a tribute to retiring Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer. Even though he’s faced little trouble getting reelected in recent years, the St. Elizabeth Republican had to fight through an expensive and competitive general election in 2008. And he barely won that year thanks to a strong performance from Democrat Barack Obama in the presidential election and the inability for the Missouri GOP to completely break through in rural areas like northeast Missouri.

But now, Republicans are easily winning statewide elections and big majorities in the legislature thanks to the party’s landslides in rural counties and conservative suburbs such as Jefferson, St. Charles and Lincoln counties. Some outside observers say this growth also created the factionalism seen today.

St. Louis County Councilman Dennis Hancock, a Fenton Republican who represents a fairly evenly divided district, said that most lawmakers in Jefferson City no longer have much competition in general elections. And that’s had a big impact on the types of people getting elected to office.

“I look back to the late '90s and early 2000s when the Republican Party was beginning to take over the state,” Hancock said. “And you had moderate, middle-of-the-road people running in primaries because you had to get elected that way and attract people from both parties to get there.”

This electoral phenomenon has manifested itself with the GOP caucus in the Senate, where Republican leaders have quarreled for years with lawmakers who feel leadership isn’t doing enough to advance conservative causes. Some of those legislators from the Missouri Freedom Caucus are running for statewide posts like governor, treasurer and secretary of state this cycle.

Mark Comfort, a St. Louis resident and GOP committeeman, said crowded primaries could also be a consequence of term limits as Republicans who run out of time in the House or Senate need to run for statewide posts to continue serving. He also said that moderate or conservative Democrats in rural parts of the state likely began to run as Republicans since that was the only way they could prevail in elections.

“The factionalism is a result of a preponderance of too much victory,” Comfort said. “Throughout the rural parts of the state, anyone interested in politics became a Republican, regardless of how deeply they believed in Republican principles.”

Supporters of Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe attend the governor candidate forum during Lincoln Days Feb. 17, 2024 in Kansas City, Mo.
Dominick Williams
for the Kansas City Beacon
Supporters of Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe attend the governor candidate forum during Lincoln Days on Saturday.

Policy versus personal divides

Still, there weren’t that many attendees at Lincoln Days who were concerned that divisions will hurt the party in November.

Michael Chance, a GOP committeeman from St. Louis County, said it makes sense for Republicans to engage in primaries when they have different views on things like education policy or transportation spending. He said he doesn’t expect Democrats to take advantage of the infighting as long as the campaigns stay on the issues and don’t devolve into personal mudslinging.

“I think it is a good thing for the party to hash out where our platform is and where the party is going,” Chance said. “As long as everything kind of stays civil, and we're on issues. We don't resort to personality or personal attacks or anything like that. But to be able to have robust debates about the party platform, and the purpose and direction of each of the statewide offices is a good thing.”

The three main Republican candidates for governor generally agreed with that view. Eigel said debates on issues is “precisely the kind of rigorous debate that the people of the state want to see.”

Ashcroft said: “We don't believe in Kings and Queens and we don't have royalty in America — we elect our individuals.”

Kehoe, a former Senate majority leader, said lawmakers often find a way to pass legislation — even when there’s contentious debates both within the legislature and throughout campaigns.

“And it seems like we always find a path. People are very passionate about their conservative issues,” Kehoe said. “And I think for Missourians, that's a good thing."

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks with potential voters at a pancake breakfast in Kansas City, MO.
Dominick Williams
for the Kansas City Beacon
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks with potential voters at a pancake breakfast Saturday in Kansas City.

Presidential impact

One of the other reasons Republicans are confident is that Trump likely will easily win the state.

Democratic statewide victories in 1992 and 2008 were largely driven by strong performances by that party’s presidential candidates — and that likely won’t happen in 2024.

“I would say, you stack up [Trump’s] record against Biden's record,” said U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley. “I mean, I take Trump over Biden any day a week and twice on Sunday.”

Missouri’s noncompetitive nature in the presidential contest could preclude Democratic groups from pouring in money to assist the party’s candidates for the Senate or governor. But Democrats could turn out more than usual thanks to possible ballot initiatives legalizing abortion and raising the minimum wage.

And Hawley isn’t expecting to get a pass, as he’s long said he expects Democratic groups to spend prodigiously against him in the fall. One of his Democratic opponents, Lucas Kunce, has raised more than $5 million since jumping into the contest last year.

During a breakfast speech Saturday that Hawley sponsored, he said his supporters need to be vigilant both at the ballot box and elsewhere.

“We're going to live in the greatest revival in American history, we're going to see a different future. But it depends on us being willing to take a stand,” Hawley said. “And that's why I say it's not just about going to a voting booth and pulling a lever. It's about how we live day to day. It's about what we're doing in our homes and our businesses and our jobs.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.