© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jay Ashcroft announces run for governor, setting up highly competitive GOP primary

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks in favor of bills that would, in part, ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during an Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft announced on Thursday that he's running for governor.

Updated at 11:45 a.m. on Thursday with House Minority Leader Crystal Quade's comments

After several months of relative ambiguity, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft jumped into next year’s race for Missouri governor on Thursday.

The GOP official’s announcement guarantees there will be a competitive primary for governor, a contest that could be decisive unless Democrats are able to find a nominee who can resurrect the party’s historical geographic coalition.

“I'm running for governor because I believe that Missouri can do much more than it's doing,” Ashcroft said. “I believe Missouri is a state that other states should be looking at, and following.”

Ashcroft is an attorney and engineer who was elected secretary of state in 2016 and 2020 by big margins. He announced after his 2020 win that he wouldn’t run for a third term but didn’t say whether he was planning on running for the governorship.

“One of the things that I think differentiates me from a lot of people is that politicians fix the blame. Engineers fix the problem,” Ashcroft said. “I have a record of actually getting things done and getting legislation accomplished.”

There were signs that Ashcroft would be positioning himself toward the contest to succeed Gov. Mike Parson, who cannot run again because of term limits. He decided not to run for the U.S. Senate last year, even though he likely would have been a frontrunner. And a political action committee set up to support his state-based political pursuits has been steadily raising money for some time.

Ashcroft is the son of John Ashcroft, one of the most successful Republican statewide officeholders in Missouri history. But he stressed that GOP voters will see him more than just a famous name but rather someone who can advance conservative principles on education policy and public safety.

“I visit every county in the state every year. I don't just sit in the Jeff City/Columbia bubble and I think I know everything,” Ashcroft said. “People know me. They can talk to me. They can see what I've done.

“And I think that goes a long way,” he added. “I think people want leadership. They want honesty. But they also want results. And I think I can show them all three.”

Gov. Mike Parson, surrounded by Rep. John Simmons, R-Washington; Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, signs HB 1878 into law. The omnibus law makes many changes to the state's election laws, including requiring a photo ID in order to vote. The law goes into effect on Aug. 28.
Sarah Kellogg
St. Louis Public Radio
Ashcroft, right, is hoping to succeed Gov. Mike Parson, center, who cannot run again in 2024 due to term limits.

Raising his profile

Ashcroft has been more vocal recently on a number of hot button issues. He pushed for a rule tying state library funding to libraries instituting policies shielding minors from age-inappropriate material.

He was also a vocal supporter of adopting a congressional map that would have created seven Republican districts and one Democratic district. That plan failed.

More recently, Ashcroft has come out in favor of legislation that would prevent minors from receiving transgender health care like puberty blockers, hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgeries. He said he was disappointed that the Missouri Senate passed a bill that would exempt minors who are currently getting gender-affirming care and would sunset after four years.

“It's either wrong or it isn't,” Ashcroft said. “The idea of a four-year sunset? It's ridiculous.”

Ashcroft also said he would focus his governorship on slowing down the growth of Missouri budgets. And he said he would prioritize overhauling education in Missouri to make sure “the money follows the child.”

“I remember when my father was in the office, we talked about the problems that not every child could get a good education in this state,” said Ashcroft, referring to when his dad was governor from 1985 to 1993. “It's time we quit talking about it, it's time we start making a difference, and we start solving that problem. So the first step is choice. Real choice. Not just choice with [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] controlling everything. … It’s allowing the parents to be in charge of that education, how their children are taught, and what they're taught. Because parents know best.”

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe presides over the Missouri Senate in May 2019.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe presides over the Missouri Senate in May 2019. Kehoe announced in 2022 he was running for governor to succeed Parson.

Competitive primary ahead

Ashcroft’s announcement puts him on a collision course with Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, who announced he was running to succeed Parson last year.

Kehoe’s political action committee has been raising money at a high clip, and he’s been crisscrossing the state to try and drum up support for his candidacy.

Kehoe, who owned a prominent mid-Missouri car dealership before entering politics in 2010, said voters “want somebody who's going to run the state like a business.”

“No matter who the primaries are between, I think you'll have a lot of similarities in their conservative values and what their beliefs are,” Kehoe said. “But I think it's all going to come down to what's their background? What's their journey been through the state of Missouri? What are their experiences? What is their business experience?”

Also considering a bid for governor is Sen. Bill Eigel, a St. Charles County Republican who has clashed with GOP leadership in the Senate.

He said in February he’s hoping to tap into conservative sentiment that Missouri policymakers aren’t doing enough to advance Republican policies.

“I'm hearing a lot of Republicans that are expressing disappointment that we haven't enacted more big Republican policies,” Eigel said. “And they're pointing to states like Florida, where guys like Ron DeSantis have the perception that they are. So I want to see a world where Ron DeSantis wakes up in the morning and turns on his television and says, ‘Man, what about all the good things that are going on in Missouri?’”

House Minority Leader Rep. Crystal Quade (D-Springfield) addresses the media On Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during a response to the State of the State address at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
House Minority Crystal Quade told reporters on Thursday she was "absolutely" considering a run for governor in 2024. Quade, a Springfield Democrat, cannot run for the House again due to term limits.

A Democratic challenger emerges?

Democrats do not have an announced candidate for governor yet. But that could be changing.

Hours after Ashcroft jumped into the race, House Minority Crystal Quade put out a statement that said: "Missourians deserve a governor who is dedicated to them, not an extremist who thinks he’s entitled to the People’s Mansion because of his last name."

What was notable, though, was that the statement came from a Democratic political communications professional — and not Quade's official office. And she said during a news conference in Jefferson City on Thursday that she was "absolutely" considering running for governor.

"We've not seen much from [Ashcroft] when it comes to putting Missourians first," she said.

In order to win, Quade or any other Democratic gubernatorial hopeful have to win much more support in rural and suburban counties than the party’s past two gubernatorial hopefuls — Nicole Galloway and Chris Koster.

Actually pulling that off could depend on a myriad of factors beyond a candidate's control, including the popularity of the Democratic presidential nominee in Missouri or if the GOP nominee for governor runs a lackluster campaign.

There could be another variable that could impact the governor's race: Abortion rights.

Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Russ Carnahan said a potential ballot item legalizing abortion could energize voters in a different way than past presidential election cycles.

“I just think Republicans are on the wrong side of history on this,” Carnahan said. “And I think it's already created a backlash. We've seen in turnout in the last election that was predicted to be a red wave. It wasn't.”

Kehoe, Eigel and Ashcroft are all supportive of the state’s ban on most abortions. And Ashcroft said he could defend that measure if it’s up for a vote while he’s running for governor.

“We talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There are no other rights unless you have life,” Ashcroft said. “So I'm very happy to campaign for life for everyone. And I will always do that.”

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

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.