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Clashes at governor candidate forum showcase GOP rifts and contrasting visions for Missouri

A photo collage of three Missouri governor candidates: Bill Eigel, Jay Ashcroft and Mike Kehoe
Dominick Williams
for the Kansas City Beacon
From left, state Sen. Bill Eigel, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe have raised millions of dollars in their bids to succeed retiring Gov. Mike Parson.

KANSAS CITY — The top Republican candidates for governor provided the clearest glimpse of what’s to come in the primary campaign during a forum Saturday at the party’s Lincoln Days gathering — and it featured some sharp elbows.

The verbal blows onstage reflect a new reality for a party that’s been dominant in state elections for nearly eight years. Republicans now face noticeable factionalism in their legislative supermajority and on the campaign trail.

Lincoln Days weekend in Kansas City is one of the biggest events for the party each year. Much of the weekend features speeches from top elected officials, mingling opportunities for party activists and officeholders, and the chance for aspiring candidates to meet some of the party’s most ardent volunteers.

The forum featured four gubernatorial candidates: Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, state Sen. Bill Eigel and Joplin businessman Chris Wright. Kehoe, Ashcroft and Eigel have raised millions of dollars in their bids to succeed retiring Gov. Mike Parson, while Wright has raised about $20,000.

Despite forum organizers placing restrictions on how candidates could attack or criticize each other, the roughly 45-minute event included several passive-aggressive barbs.

For instance: Ashcroft and Eigel both alluded to Kehoe’s support for boosting either sales taxes or gas taxes to fund the state’s transportation infrastructure. Eigel said “to have somebody stand up on this stage today, who has backed the largest tax increases in Missouri history, tried to present themselves as a tax cutter — that's why people hate politicians, folks.”

Ashcroft also said proceeds from the gas tax were “unaccountable” to the public since they are under the control of appointed Highways and Transportation Commission members — as opposed to the legislature. He also chastised the growth in the state budgets over the past few years, driven largely by an influx of federal money coming to the state.

“And when people talk about wanting to have low taxes, you can't have low taxes and double and triple the size of your government,” Ashcroft said. “It doesn't work when people say they want lower taxes, but they grow your government. Well, they're just saying something that just ain't true.”

Attendees at the GOP Lincoln Days governor candidate forum on Saturday, Feb. 17. 2024 listen to the candidates.
Dominick Williams
for the Kansas City Beacon
Attendees at the GOP Lincoln Days governor candidate forum on Saturday listen to the candidates.

For his part, Kehoe noted that he has supported more than $2 billion in tax cuts for Missourians. He also said after the forum that funding the state’s transportation infrastructure is an important economic and public safety priority. “It's critical to Missouri families, school buses, ambulances that drive across those roads and bridges,” he said.

While Kehoe largely refrained from directly or indirectly criticizing the other candidates, Eigel dinged both Ashcroft and Kehoe in his closing statement when he said, “Don't be afraid of the message that we can't take our state back because I don't have enough lobbyist money or I don't have the right last name from my dad.” Ashcroft is the son of former Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft.

“I got involved with politics when I realized that our government is out of control. And there's a reckoning needed all over this country,” Eigel said. “And I think that I got into this, just like millions of Missourians are getting into this political discussion right now, because of everything that is wrong in our government, everything that they're hearing from politicians and all the broken promises that they're tired of seeing.”

Ashcroft replied that despite coming from a political family, he initially aspired to be an civil engineer as opposed to running for office. But he said that in 2014, he chose to get involved in the political arena by running for state Senate because he felt he could do better than others running on the GOP ticket.

“Now's the time for choosing: Are we going to pick words, or we're going to pick actions?” Ashcroft said.

Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe answers a question during the GOP's Lincoln Days governor candidate forum in Kansas City.
Dominick Williams
Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, left, answers a question during the GOP's Lincoln Days governor candidate forum in Kansas City. The other candidates at the forum were, from left, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, state Sen. Bill Eigel and Joplin businessman Chris Wright.

Kehoe alluded to his successful tenure running car dealerships throughout mid-Missouri before being elected to the Senate and becoming lieutenant governor. He also stressed his direct connection to agriculture as a first-generation cattle farmer.

“I'm not a professional politician. This is not something I dreamed about ever doing,” Kehoe said. “Government is not super smart. They don't need to tell you what to do every day, they need to get out of your way and let you grow and prosper. And I need your help.”

Wright said that regardless of how the Aug. 6 primary turns out, Republicans need to rally together — especially if Democrats are motivated and unified.

“As Republicans, we're all good candidates up here,” Wright said. “Some people are going to choose one or the other for a variety of reasons. But again, we've got to stop fighting and stick together.”

Candidates call for interventions in St. Louis and Kansas City

During the forum, Ashcroft, Kehoe and Eigel all stressed their desire for more state intervention to fight crime in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Kehoe said he would be in favor of using a court process known as quo warranto to remove prosecutors who he contends aren’t being aggressive at going after criminals. He said he wants to avoid more situations like what happened last year in St. Louis, when former Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner was widely criticized for mismanaging her office.

“Always give people the opportunity who have voted these people in to make it right. That's always going to happen,” Kehoe said. “But if it gets to a point like it did in St. Louis, where crime was rampantly out of control, somewhere along the line, somebody has to step in and be an adult and say: ‘We need our community safety back.’”

All three candidates are in favor of having a board appointed by the governor oversee the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. (Missouri voters in 2012 granted St. Louis local control of its police department after 150 years of state oversight.) When asked if that was a practical solution to fighting crime when Kansas City has faced record homicides while its police department is under state control, Ashcroft said, “I'm not saying that it’s perfect, but it's better than where we are.”

“I'm a big believer in local control,” Ashcroft said. “But when the local government isn't doing its job, the state needs to step in.”

Eigel said he would restrict money going to major cities if they enact certain policies. He pointed to St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones’ proposal to curtail certain types of guns within the city’s borders.

“I'm prepared to use the state budget as a tool to make sure that if they're not going to protect the rights of their citizens, they're going to start suffering consequences for all this government down in the city of St. Louis,” Eigel said.

Posters for U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, hang on the wall of a convention room.
Dominick Williams
for the Kansas City Beacon
Attendees listen to U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speak at a pancake breakfast in Kansas City.

Hawley rallies ahead of reelection bid

All statewide offices up for grabs in November feature crowded Republican primaries. For instance, the race to become the next lieutenant governor has more than a half-dozen candidates — and Sen. Lincoln Hough of Springfield is considering jumping into the contest.

The only race that doesn’t feature a serious primary so far is for U.S. Senate, where incumbent Josh Hawley is likely to be renominated for a second term. He spent part of Friday and Saturday revving up attendees at Lincoln Days by criticizing President Joe Biden’s administration and contrasting himself with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Hawley has publicly feuded with McConnell for years and on Friday noted his vote against McConnell to remain the GOP Senate leader, blasting the Kentucky Republican’s support of providing military aid to Ukraine.

“I think this president is one of the … worst presidents in American history. But I'm not going to support Republicans who are not much better,” Hawley said on Friday evening. “And this is why I've said it before. I will not vote for Mitch McConnell to be the leader of Republicans in the Senate. Not last time, not next time. Not ever. Not ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever? No. Because we need a change. We need something different.”

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks with potential voters at a pancake breakfast in Kansas City, MO.
Dominick Williams
for the Kansas City Beacon
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks with potential voters at a pancake breakfast in Kansas City.

Hawley said on Saturday he wasn’t concerned that crowded primaries for statewide posts would make the Missouri GOP weaker, explaining that he thinks it shows the party has a deep bench.

“The Republican Party in this state is strong and getting stronger,” he said. “It doesn't appear to be the same for our Democrat friends in the state.”

As of now, Hawley will likely face either Lucas Kunce or state Sen. Karla May in the general election. While refraining from attacking either candidate, he dispelled assumptions that he may get a free ride since the state has trended Republican in recent years.

“Do I think it's going to be a tough race? Absolutely. Do I think it's going to be a hammer and tongs fight? Absolutely,” Hawley said. “But at the end of the day, the seat is not for sale. I think the Democrats are going to try to buy the seat. I think you'll see unbelievable amounts of cash, unbelievable amounts of special interest groups playing with dark money and everything else. And, you know, we're not here for sale.”

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