© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rancor hits TV airwaves in Missouri GOP's battle for attorney general

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, left, and professor Josh Hawley came out swinging in their campaigns for the Republican nomination for attorney general.
official photos

Updated Saturday, June 25:  Missouri’s Republican contest for attorney general – long this year’s nastiest battle in the state– has gotten so bitter that the two combatants already are running vicious attack ads six weeks before the Aug. 2 election.

Kurt Schaefer's new ad accuses Josh Hawley of providing legal help for “a terrorist,’’ while Hawley’s ad features Schaefer repeatedly referring to himself as “a moderate.”

Each candidate claims the other is intentionally misrepresenting the facts.

Meanwhile, the two camps – or their allies – have filed complaints against the other with the Missouri Ethics Commission, accusing Schaefer and Hawley of misusing their government-financed posts as a state senator (Schaefer) and law professor (Hawley).  On Friday, the commission dismissed the complaint against Hawley.

The intensity of dislike between the candidates has some party activists comparing the Schaefer/Hawley battle, on the nastiness scale, to the legendary 1992 GOP contest for governor between then-Secretary of State Roy Blunt and then-Attorney General Bill Webster. (Blunt is now is in the U.S. Senate and Webster is rebuilding his life after a prison sentence.)

The Hawley/Schaefer contest also pits the state’s two top political donors against each other. Wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield gave $500,000 to Schaefer last fall, while Joplin businessman David Humphreys contributed $500,000 to Hawley earlier this month. Hawley also has received $250,000 from Humphreys’ sister.

On Friday, the Schaefer campaign reported receiving almost $250,000 from two groups -- Missourians for Excellence in Government and Great St. Louis -- that are almost entirely funded by Sinquefield.

And then there’s the intrigue of who’s behind the various outside groups – with unidentified donors -- who are running TV and radio ads,  generally against Schaefer.  Schaefer accuses Hawley or his allies of being behind the attacks, while Hawley denies any knowledge.

So far, the groups -- which include the Public Integrity Alliance and the State Conservative Reform Action PAC -- have paid for or reserved more than $1 million to air their ads or conduct other anti-Schaefer activities.

Columbia, Mo., is Ground Zero

Both candidates reside in Columbia, Mo. The victor of the Aug. 2 GOP primary will compete in November against the Democratic winner: either former Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley or St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman.

Schaefer, 50, is in his last term as a state senator. Hawley, 36, is on leave from his job as a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School.

The most recent campaign-finance reports, filed in April, show Schaefer with more money, in part because he has loaned some of his own money to his campaign. Hawley had outraised him slightly during the latest quarter, and the Humphreys money has helped close any financial gap.

Their jobs figure into the ethics complaints lodged against both candidates. Schaefer is accused of using his influence as chairman of the Senate’s powerful appropriations committee to pressure the university to block or revoke Hawley’s leave. Hawley is accused of beginning his campaign before he went on leave and using university resources, such as his office computer.

Both men deny any improprieties and accuse the other of being behind the ethics complaint.

Schaefer’s campaign highlights his previous background in the courtroom, including a stint in the attorney general’s office, and his knowledge of state government. He cites his experience with the state budget and his role as chairman of a special committee charged with investigating allegations that Planned Parenthood had been illegally trafficking fetal remains from abortions. (Planned Parenthood operations in the state and around the country have denied the allegations. State Attorney General Chris Koster found no wrongdoing in the organization's Missouri activities, and probes in other states have not resulted in any charges.)

Hawley promotes his work as a constitutional lawyer, his experience as a U.S. Supreme Court clerk and his involvement in the high-profile Hobby Lobby case that went before the Supreme Court. (The court ruled in 2014 against the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that businesses provide insurance coverage for contraception, even if they have religious objections.)

Schaefer says Hawley lacks the necessary courtroom experience. Hawley says Schaefer is part of a corrupt “Jefferson City cartel.”

Ads highlight chief attacks

Hawley is running one ad that doesn't mention Schaefer, but implies that Hawley’s rivals viewed the attorney general’s office as simply another rung on the political ladder.

His newer ad attacks Schaefer directly,but using video clips that the show the senator repeatedly characterizing himself as “a moderate” – not a popular term in many GOP ranks.

The Hawley campaign says Schaefer’s own words illustrate their assertion that he isn’t a true conservative.

State Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, Schaefer’s campaign manager, retorted that “actions matter more than words.” 

Schaefer “is recognized as a stalwart conservative,’’ Dieckhaus continued, particularly when it comes to actions to oppose abortion, support gun rights and curb state spending.

Schaefer has been endorsed by over 100 members of the Missouri General Assembly, including House Speaker Todd Richardson. Hawley's backers include retired U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo.

Schaefer and Hawley have both been endorsed by Missouri Right to Life, a major anti-abortion group.

Battles center on court cases, legislative actions

Schaefer’s campaign is playing down Hawley’s involvement in the Hobby Lobby case, noting that Hawley did not argue the case in court, instead writing legal briefs.

But Schaefer’s camp is playing up its allegations that Hawley played a bigger role than he has acknowledged in a case that involves a prison inmate who successfully pursued a legal fight to grow his beard in line with his new Muslim beliefs.

The inmate is Gregory Holt, an Arkansas inmate who changed his name to Abdul Maalik Muhammad. His case is the centerpiece of Schaefer’s new ad.

Holt sued because the state prison system barred him from growing a long beard. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor last year.

Holt’s case was taken up by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a key legal player in the Hobby Lobby case as well. Hawley was initially listed as one of the Becket lawyers on the brief filed in May 2014 with the U.S. Supreme Court. An amended motion filed several months later did not include Hawley’s name.

Hawley has maintained that his name was initially included in error, and that he never agreed to be involved in the Holt case. His campaign has noted that the change in Hawley’s status was reported by news outlets a year ago.

Becket Fund executive director Kristina Arriaga confirmed in a statement Thursday that Hawley was never involved in the Holt case. “… As we have previously stated, Josh was not involved in the Holt case. He did not represent Mr. Holt or serve as his attorney. Statements to the contrary are false. Regrettably, Josh’s name was mistakenly included in a list of other Becket Fund attorneys on one filing in the case. This clerical error was corrected in subsequent filings…”

As for the Hobby Lobby case,  the firm’s general counsel, Peter Dobelbower, praised Hawley’s involvement. “I was very grateful to have Josh as part of the legal team that represented us before the Supreme Court. He provided unique insight into the arguments that made our case so successful.”

So far, Schaefer’s campaign is standing by its ad, and its attacks against Hawley.

Meanwhile, Schaefer is under fire from an ad by the State Conservative Action PAC that blasts him for supporting legislation several years ago that revamped Missouri's ban on foreign ownership of agricultural land. The ad doesn't mention that most of the General Assembly's GOP leadership supported the law change, as did Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.