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Missouri GOP Lincoln Days attendees mull whether Trump is a gift or a curse

 U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley speaks at the Missouri Republican Party Lincoln Days Banquet in Springfield on Feb. 10, 2023.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley speaks Friday at the Missouri Republican Party Lincoln Days Banquet in Springfield. Hawley is up for reelection next year, and his fate could be tied to how well the GOP nominee for president performs in Missouri.

SPRINGFIELD — Halfway through the Friday night banquet for Missouri Republican Lincoln Days, state Republican Party Chairman Nick Myers announced to the crowd that he had a surprise guest: former President Donald Trump.

Speaking to attendees through Myers’ phone, Trump congratulated Myers on another term as party chairman. He promised to soon return to Missouri, a state that voted for him by historically large margins.

“Have a good time everybody — I’ll come out and see you all very soon. We’ll do a big rally together,” Trump said to a round of applause from the audience.

Despite being out of office for more than two years, Trump casts a long shadow over Missouri Republican politics. Few politicians in the past few decades have helped the GOP as much as Trump. His blowout wins in 2016 by nearly 19 percentage points and 2020 by more than 15 points in Missouri helped propel the party to victory in elections up and down the ballot.

“I think President Trump uniquely resonated with Missouri voters,” said U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt, who endorsed Trump’s third bid for the White House. “He is someone who Missourians have proven they support by overwhelming numbers. … Missourians have supported him. I support him too.”

But others at Lincoln Days are wary of Trump’s return to the electoral fray. They contend that even if he can push Republicans in Missouri to victory, he proved in 2020 that he can’t win a general election against a Democratic opponent.

Chris Grahn-Howard, who has been active in Missouri Republican Party politics for years, said “quite honestly I hope Donald Trump shuts up and sits down.”

“Do you want the national stage and have the things that go with having the presidency with the GOP?” Grahn-Howard said. “I hope we look at the bigger picture. That would be my advice. We have great candidates running on a statewide level. And so, Trump doesn’t have to be a factor.”

While a number of Republicans have been floated as possible presidential contenders besides Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is, at least for now, seen as the biggest competition for the former president. Trump has stepped up his attacks on DeSantis in recent weeks, even though the recently reelected governor hasn’t actually announced that he’s running.

Former Congressman Billy Long was an early supporter of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. But he also served with DeSantis in the U.S. House and said that he doesn’t think that Missouri Republicans will suffer if the Florida governor ends up being the party’s nominee.

“I’m very impressed,” Long said. “He’s a lot different than when he was in the House. In the House, he was a backbencher who didn’t say a lot. And so, he’s really reinvented himself in a good way to be probably America’s foremost governor right now.”

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, who unlike Schmitt hasn’t endorsed a candidate for the GOP presidential primary, said he expects whoever comes out of the process will do well in Missouri — a state that’s become much more Republican over the past decade.

The first-term senator said that Democratic economic policies haven’t been good to the country, pointing to, among other things, systemic inflation and volatile gas prices.

“I think that people are going to be extremely motivated to get out and to send Joe Biden out of office,” Hawley said.

Trickle-down impact

Hawley is up for reelection next year, and he spent most of Saturday morning greeting well-wishers at a breakfast his family organized.

Some of the issues Hawley spoke about during speeches on Friday and Saturday night include his displeasure over a Chinese balloon hovering over the United States — and his outrage over a whistleblower’s accusations involving the Washington University Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

He added that “our greatest task in the Senate and in Congress is to get power out of the hands of the elites” and place power back in the hands of the people.

“These aren’t quiet times. These are times of challenge. These are times of hardship,” Hawley said. “Sometimes these are times of danger. But there are also times of tremendous opportunity. Because what we do now, in these times before us now will determine the future of our country for a century and more to come.”

Democrat Lucas Kunce – who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate last year — has announced a bid against Hawley. Missouri Democrats are hoping that some of Hawley's actions in office, including his decision to object to Biden’s electoral win in Pennsylvania, will make the 2024 race competitive.

But Hawley comes in with a geographical advantage, as Republicans like him have been able to run up the score in rural counties and prevail decisively in growing suburbs in Jefferson and St. Charles counties. And it’s an open question whether national Democrats will prioritize Missouri when they have a host of vulnerable incumbents to defend next year.

“That would be kind of a suicide mission, I think, to run against Josh Hawley,” said Congressman Eric Burlison, R-Springfield. “I think he's truly an exceptional talent, one of the most brilliant minds in D.C. and certainly just very popular in the state.”

For his part, Hawley expects whoever emerges from the primary will have access to a lot of money, even if the national Democratic Party decides that Missouri is not a high priority in 2024.

“We’ve got to run a vigorous campaign,” Hawley said. “And make no mistake: I fully expect they will dump $100 million or more of out-of-state money into this race. It’s going to be big, big money against us. I’ve taken on the big corporations, big tech, big pharma. And they will spend like crazy to try and take me out.”

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