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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 Crowded U.S. Senate Contest

Missouri Republicans congregate at the 2021 Lincoln Days celebration in Kansas City on June 11, 2021.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Missouri Republicans gathered at the 2021 Lincoln Days celebration in Kansas City on June 11.

Near the end of Missouri’s Lincoln Days gathering in Kansas City, GOP activist Cecilia S. Johnson summed up the party’s position nationally.

“We as a party feel defeated. Beat down, kicked down. And that may be so for a little while,” Johnson said. “But I assure you: We are not finished.”

Johnson noted that as Republicans are still trying to find their footing after Democrat Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential contest, the GOP nationwide and in Missouri has an opportunity to expand its reach since the president’s party typically doesn’t do too well in midterm elections.

But that optimism is tempered by the U.S. Senate contest that’s getting more crowded by the week.

Some GOP officials fear that the primary’s expanding field is making it easier for former Gov. Eric Greitens to prevail. But others say that since all of the non-Greitens candidates either have highly organized campaigns or have considerable name recognition, anointing Greitens as U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt’s successor is premature.

“There’s plenty of time for these candidates to get out, campaign, let us know what their message is — and let the voters kick their tires,” said Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who decided against running for the Senate next year. “That’s a good thing. We don’t need some unknown group in a backroom with black smoke saying who our senator’s going to be. I have faith in the people, and I think it’s going to turn out just fine.”

Vicky Hartzler and, left to right, Mark McCloskey, Eric Schmitt and Eric Greitens have announced their U.S. Senate candidacies.
Carolina Hidalgo and Carlos Moreno / St. Louis Public Radio and KCUR
So far, Vicky Hartzler and, left to right, Mark McCloskey, Eric Schmitt and Eric Greitens have announced their U.S. Senate candidacies.

Greitens’ shadow

During the Lincoln Days weekend, three of the announced candidates, Vicky Hartzler, Eric Schmitt and Mark McCloskey, made a concerted effort to convince the crowd of GOP activists and volunteers that they should be the nominee:

  • Hartzler is the only candidate who is not from St. Louis and has longstanding appeal with social conservatives. “I’ve been there in Washington for 11 years now fighting for our values and getting things done for Missourians,” she said.
  • Schmitt has won two statewide elections for treasurer and attorney general, and made headlines with his lawsuits against the Biden administration. “I think if you look and see who’s taking action, that’s certainly a strong suit for us,” he said.
  • McCloskey, who gained national attention for pointing guns at demonstrators walking by his house, points to his lack of electoral experience as a big plus. “My decision to join the ranks of the civil servants is 22 days old,” he said. “So I can’t be more of an outsider than that.”

Yet some of the talk at Lincoln Days was about who wasn’t there: Greitens. He was in Arizona to attend a controversial audit that’s seeking to discredit Biden’s Electoral College victory there. Greitens also drove to the border with Mexico.

“Arizona is showing what it takes to get to the bottom of the 2020 election,” Greitens said in a web video while he was in Maricopa County.

Greitens’ Arizona visit is part of an effort to appeal to Missouri’s Trump supporters who continue to fight his loss to Biden. But there was some evidence at Lincoln Days that Missouri Republicans are focusing on 2022 — as opposed to continuing to complain about Biden’s victory.

Gov. Mike Parson, who replaced Greitens after he resigned amid scandal, said: “When we lost that race, our heart went out to that whole administration. But that’s OK. It is what it is.”

“What we have to do is push forward,” Parson said. “We cannot let the Democrats, we cannot let the socialist agenda affect what we’re doing. We have to stay the course. You that are here tonight are the firewall.”

Regardless of whether the 2020 election is a major issue for GOP voters in 2022, some Republicans are worried that Greitens, who still has hardcore supporters among Republican primary voters, could win the nomination — and then make a noncompetitive general election competitive because of the scandal that brought down his governorship. Democrats, like former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, don’t buy the idea that Missouri is so red that even someone with Greitens’ history can win in November 2022.

“I think it’s a little early, and it all depends on how the Republican primary plays out,” said McCaskill, who pointed to former Gov. Jay Nixon as a potentially formidable candidate, especially if Greitens wins the primary. “The fact that Eric Greitens is leading in the polls gives me hope. Everyone who says, ‘Eric Greitens is a shoo-in to be the next United States senator,’ I don’t believe that. And I’m not sure that most Republicans who are thinking clearly believe that.”

But others aren’t sold on the idea that a Greitens nomination is inevitable. Some, including St. Louis County Republican Committeeman Chris Grahn-Howard, said McCloskey’s entry complicates things for Greitens.

“They’re competing over the same boundaries,” Grahn-Howard said. “If McCloskey drops out well enough in advance of the primary, then Greitens kind of takes that bloc back. But if they fight it out until the end, it stays divided.”

U.S. Congressman Jason Smith, R-Salem, talks to an attendee on June 12, 2021 at Lincoln Days in Kansas City.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
U.S. Congressman Jason Smith, R-Salem, talks to a Lincoln Days attendee in Kansas City on June 12. Smith is considering getting into the U.S. Senate contest.

An even more crowded contest?

Derrick Good, a Jefferson County native who is the secretary of the Missouri Republican Party, added that McCloskey’s entry could make a crowded field even bigger.

“I think everybody kind of assumed that if we had more than four that it was Greitens’ race to lose,” Good said. “But I think that McCloskey changes the dynamic. And I think it may lead to more people coming in.”

At least two potential Senate candidates, U.S. Reps. Billy Long and Jason Smith, who also attended Lincoln Days, are not concerned that an expanded field will lead to a de facto Greitens victory. U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner of Ballwin, who didn’t attend Lincoln Days, is also considering running for the Senate.

Smith, for instance, said that “Missourians are smart. Missourians will pick the most conservative.”

“And they’ll pick the candidate who has never backed down from the America First agenda,” Smith said. “A lot of folks can support the America First or the Trump agenda when it’s popular. But when things got tough, they tuck and run. I didn’t.”

U.S. Congressman Billy Long, R-Springfield, speaks with attendees on June 11, 2021, at Lincoln Days in Kansas City.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, speaks with attendees at Lincoln Days in Kansas City on June 11.

Long, who like Smith is close with the former president, isn’t sure if Trump will actually pick a favorite in Missouri.

“I don’t know if he endorses,” Long said. “He may or he may not. I’d love to have his endorsement just like everyone would.”

In perhaps a sign of how important Trump is in the contest, Greitens, Hartzler, Smith and Schmitt all tweeted out photos with the former president on his birthday.

And the current contenders are also trying to make the case that they’re best aligned with Trump. Hartzler points to a voting record that’s in line with the former president’s agenda, while Schmitt contends he’s “taken a blowtorch” to Biden’s agenda by suing the Democratic president’s administration. McCloskey noted that he was a vocal surrogate for Trump during the 2020 election.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley speaks with reporters on June 12, 2021, after signing copies of his book The Tyranny of Big Tech.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley speaks with reporters on June 12, after signing copies of his book "The Tyranny of Big Tech" at Lincoln Days in Kansas City.

Hawley watching primary unfold

Other GOP activists and officials are closely watching what U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley does. He was one of the most sought-after politicos at Lincoln Days, with dozens of people lining up to get an autographed copy of his new book, "The Tyranny of Big Tech."

The warm reception Hawley received at Lincoln Days, as well as big fundraising numbers over the past year, showcase that his popularity in Missouri remains strong since he objected to Biden’s Electoral College wins in Pennsylvania and Arizona. So his thoughts on who should serve beside him in the U.S. Senate could matter to GOP primary voters.

Hawley emphasized that it’s still early in the election season — and that much can change between now and the primary in August 2022. And he’s paying close attention.

“I want to see us hold this seat,” Hawley said. “And my No. 1 priority is to make sure that we get a great candidate and we win in November of 2022. And the reason I think that’s so important is I believe that Republicans will take back the Senate in ‘22 — but we can’t do it without Missouri.”

Hawley has been talking with Trump about the Senate race. But he demurred when asked if he was telling the former president to steer clear of endorsing Greitens. Hawley called on Greitens to resign in April 2018 and announced soon afterward he found enough evidence that the then-governor likely committed the felony of computer data tampering.

“Well, I never give the former president advice. I will say for President Trump: He understands the importance of this race in Missouri. He’s been very, very interested in it. He’s been very keyed on it,” said Hawley, adding that a number of candidates have met with Trump already.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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