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St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell announces U.S. Senate run

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell gives remarks after being sworn in to another term on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, during an inauguration ceremony at Memorial Park Plaza in Clayton.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell gives remarks after being sworn in for another term on Jan. 10 at Memorial Park Plaza in Clayton.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell will run for the U.S. Senate, making him the second prominent Democratic candidate who wants to take on Republican Josh Hawley.

“As Missourians and Americans, we have more in common than politicians like Josh Hawley say we do,” Bell said Wednesday in an announcement web video posted on Twitter.

In an interview, Bell said he’s continued his family’s legacy of public service — as his mother was a civil servant and his father was a police officer. He said that the unrest that followed Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson was a “turning point.”

“And when the city and region and the country for that matter was seen ready to explode, I stepped in to help calm tensions between police and protesters,” Bell said. “And then when I ran for St. Louis County prosecutor, no one thought we could win. But we not only won, but won big. And we've worked together to improve people's lives across the county.”

What Bell was referring to is his decision in 2018 to run against incumbent Bob McCulloch. He upended McCulloch by a wide margin that year and faced minimal opposition in his reelection bid last year. He can run in 2024 without giving up his prosecutor post.

“I've been in situations where the voices were loud and the problems were big,” Bell said. “But I found ways to work with people to bring real change to bring real progress. I think Washington needs more of that. And that's exactly what I intend to do.”

Lucas Kunce, democratic candidate for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Lucas Kunce, democratic candidate for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat, on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, during an abortion-rights protest at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Kunce has nabbed the support of numerous labor groups for his 2024 Senate bid.

Move sets up Democratic primary

Bell’s decision to run for the Senate puts him on a collision course with Lucas Kunce, who ran for the Senate in 2022. Kunce has racked up a number of prominent endorsements in his second Senate bid. His campaign announced an endorsement from the AFL-CIO on Wednesday.

“It's a huge day in Missouri for our campaign,” said Kunce senior advisor Connor Lunsbury. “The AFL-CIO has endorsed Lucas Kunce for U.S. Senate. This marks an important moment in the campaign as the state's election-winning labor movement unites behind Kunce, a 13-year Marine veteran who has promised to be a warrior for working people in the U.S. Senate.”

Kunce had also received the endorsement of Ferguson Mayor Ella Jones, the first Black person to serve as that city’s mayor. But Jones in an interview that she was backing Bell.

Jones emphasized that her decision was not meant to show disrespect to Kunce, adding that she's forged a close relationship with Bell since the two ran for Ferguson City Council in 2015.

"Wesley and I just go back a long way, and I'm going to support Wesley," she said.

Bell said he’ll “let other Democrats in the race make their case” on why they should be the nominee.

“I’m here to make mine. And the bottom line is this country faces big problems,” Bell said. “And as I talked about before, Missourians don't believe that their voices are being heard. They don't believe politicians in Washington are working for them. And I bring experience as an elected official representing Ferguson and St. Louis County.”

University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Anita Manion said Kunce’s cultivation of labor could be helpful since those groups can help with a Democratic contender’s fundraising. But she added Bell may have some advantages thanks to his high profile role as prosecutor and his existing relationship with Black voters.

“St. Louis County and St. Louis City are very populated Democratic strongholds where they're going to have a lot of sway in the primary,” Manion said. “We saw this in the last Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate where Kunce actually did better in the rural areas. But Trudy Busch Valentine did better in those urban and suburban areas and was able to win the primary.”

Still, Busch Valentine had an advantage because of her ability to tap into her personal wealth to self-fund her campaign. While that will likely not happen with Bell, Manion said Bell brings other strengths to the table.

“He is a strong communicator. He's clear in his messaging,” Manion said. “And he's really built a community, particularly in the St. Louis and the metro region, where he's a known figure.”

Missouri Attorney General and senatorial candidate Josh Hawley speaks to supporters at a campaign event in Chesterfield on Oct. 29, 2018.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio

Taking on Hawley

Most election prognosticators say Hawley is favored to win reelection, thanks to Missouri’s tilt to the right over the past few election cycles. But Democrats contend Hawley is more vulnerable than people expect, especially after he was the first senator to object to President Joe Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania.

Hawley has predicted that Democratic groups will spend millions of dollars against him to prevent him from getting another term.

Hawley’s campaign said in a statement that the Democratic primary “will be a competition to see which candidate can get farther to the left by ending girls sports and being soft on crime.”

“We expect whoever emerges from the messy primary to be the darling of the woke left and raise tens of millions of dollars to try and buy this seat from Missourians,” the statement continued.

Manion said the fact that the winner of the Democratic primary could have access to lots of financial resources makes the stakes high for Kunce and Bell.

“I think that this could be a high profile race, particularly because Josh Hawley is the lightning rod,” she said.

Bell said Hawley’s statement shows he is more “focused on being famous than on serving Missouri.”

“When I was in the middle of chaos, I worked to calm those tensions. When Josh Hawley was faced with chaos, he inflamed them and that's the difference between us,” Bell said. “And I think Missourians deserve a real voice at the table in Congress, someone who will work with anyone to improve their lives. We have enough politicians throwing bombs, we need more people building bridges.”

Asked whether he can defy election predictors and prevail in a state that’s more Republican-leaning than it was a decade ago, Bell replied: “I'm not afraid of tough fights.”

“I think they're looking for someone who will commit to working across the aisle and delivering results, as I've done,” Bell said. “And that's why I'm running. And that's how I win.”

Missouri’s Senate primary is set for August 2024.

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