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Missouri elected officials and candidates are divided over continued Ukraine support

Tetyana Dyuk, 41, of St. Charles, Mo., waves a Ukrainian flag on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, to bring awareness to the Russian invasion of her home country during a demonstration at the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Tetyana Dyuk, 41, of St. Charles, waves a Ukrainian flag to bring awareness to the Russian invasion of her home country in February 2022 during a demonstration at the Gateway Arch.

On a recent Friday evening in Kansas City, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley was rolling through an impassioned speech to attendees of Missouri Republican Party Lincoln Days when he took exception to funding the war in Ukraine.

“While we can't hire more police officers, while drugs are pouring into our schools, while our wages are flatlining, while our jobs are going overseas, while we are here and suffering while America is crumbling to pieces, they want to fund the borders of Ukraine,” Hawley said. “And you know, pardon my language, but my view is hell no.”

Hawley’s opposition to legislative packages assisting Ukraine as it struggles to repel Russia’s invasion is becoming a more common policy position within the Republican Party. It’s also become a rallying point for the GOP base.

“I don't support blank checks for endless wars,” said U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Missouri.

But Hawley’s position isn’t universal among Missouri Republicans — or the Democratic candidates who want to run against him. Even some Missouri Republicans who are leery of continued Ukraine aid aren’t willing to sign on to some of the arguments propelled by prominent conservatives.

Still, focus could soon move to how Missouri’s House Republican delegation will respond to a foreign aid package that includes $60 billion worth of military and financial assistance to Ukraine.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks with potential voters at a pancake breakfast on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo.
Dominick Williams
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks with potential voters at a pancake breakfast on Feb. 17 in Kansas City.

Setting priorities

Since Russia launched its invasion in early 2022, Congress has authorized tens of billions of dollars' worth of assistance to Ukraine. Some of the funds aren’t going directly to Ukraine, but rather to American defense contractors replenishing weapon stockpiles being shipped to the country.

Hawley has been a fairly consistent critic of providing aid to Ukraine. Among other reasons, he contends that providing military assistance and financial support for Ukraine is a distraction from helping Taiwan prepare for a potential invasion from China.

More recently, Hawley said funding for Ukraine is inappropriate when Republicans, including departing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have opposed expanding a program that pays for medical bills to people who have been sickened by radioactive waste exposure.

Hawley, who has sponsored legislation to create a special inspector general to track aid to Ukraine, said last month, “I'm not going to vote to send money to Ukraine, unless and until we get nuclear radiation victims in the state of Missouri compensated.”

“The people in St. Charles and St. Louis who've been exposed to nuclear radiation for 40 and 50 years have been lied to,” Hawley said. “It hasn't been cleaned up. They haven't been compensated. They need to get their medical bills paid for. When we are willing to do that, I'm happy to talk about aid to foreign countries, although not without oversight if it's going to be Ukraine.”

He added that his insistence around voting on compensation for victims of radioactive waste exposure would also apply to assisting Israel and Taiwan — but added that there’s a difference between those aid packages and help for Ukraine.

“With Israel, we're looking at a qualitatively different thing,” Hawley said. “They're asking for a tiny fraction of the money we've given to Ukraine.”

Other critics of Ukraine aid, including U.S. Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, have said Ukraine’s longstanding problems with corruption should give members of Congress pause before providing the country with more money.

When asked if that same standard should apply to Israel, especially since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been on trial for corruption, Burlison replied, “I think the big disconnect is that Ukraine is not an ally of the United States.“

“There is no better ally to the United States or extension of the United States than the nation of Israel,” Burlison said. “There might be corruption in Israel, but we have corruption in the United States.”

Democratic senate candidate Lucas Kunce, center, talks to an attendee of the Missouri State Fair’s Ham Breakfast on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023, in Sedalia, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Lucas Kunce, a Democratic candidate for the 2024 Senate race, talks to an attendee of the Missouri State Fair’s Ham Breakfast last August in Sedalia.

Democratic support for Ukraine funding

Hawley’s position on providing military and financial aid to Ukraine is different from those of the two major candidates running for the Democratic nomination to oppose his reelection bid.

“I definitely think that we should support Ukraine,” said state Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis.

Independence resident Lucas Kunce said he’s against having “boots on the ground” but added: “Russia is an aggressive state, we've seen that they're willing to invade their neighbors. And we need to make sure that we stop that before it spreads to all of Europe.”

While an aid package to Taiwan, Ukraine and Israel passed the Senate, it’s stuck in the House. Speaker Mike Johnson could face a revolt from his caucus if he decides to let any legislation assisting Ukraine through the chamber.

State Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, announces her bid for the 2024 U.S. Senate race on Tuesday, July 11, 2023 outside the Civil Courts Building in St. Louis. She joins Lucas Kunce and Wesley Bell in the Democratic primary. May has represented portions of St. Louis and St. Louis County in the Missouri Senate since 2019. Before that, she served for eight years in the state House.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, announces her bid for the 2024 U.S. Senate race on July 11 outside the Civil Courts Building in St. Louis.

Some Republicans are openly talking about using what’s known as a discharge petition to force a vote on the bill. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, echoed what many Ukraine aid supporters have said: If a bill helping the country was put on the House floor for an up-or-down vote, it would likely pass.

“I’d say 85 to 90% of the members of Congress support Ukraine funding,” Cleaver said.

That’s because some Republicans support continuing to help Ukraine, including U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin. The vice chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently traveled to Europe, where she met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“My talks with heads of state, elected officials, and many others only reinforced my belief we have to defeat the inherent evil of Vladimir Putin and support Ukraine so they can bring Russia’s military to its knees,” Wagner said. “I hope there will be a comprehensive national security package that addresses that vital support, as well as our own domestic security.”

Former President Donald Trump points out the media on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at a “Save America!” Rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The opposition of former President Donald Trump, shown at a 2022 rally in Mendon, Illinois, to aiding Ukraine has made any financial assistance to the country unpopular among some GOP voters.

GOP backlash

Polls have consistently shown that Republican voters have soured on Ukraine aid. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 55% of Republican respondents say that the U.S. is spending too much on Ukraine, compared to 17% of Democrats.

Former President Donald Trump, the likely GOP nominee for the presidency, has also been a major factor in driving Republican opinion. He’s been critical of sending more money to Ukraine and has promised to “end the war” if he’s brought back into the White House.

There’s also been a flood of negative coverage about Ukraine from right-wing media personalities and political figures. Tucker Carlson, for instance, has spent months trying to paint Russia as an aggrieved party in the war — going so far to conduct a sympathetic interview with Russian President Vladamir Putin.

Missouri Republicans, for the most part, have been making different arguments in opposing aid to Ukraine than Carlson. Burlison, for instance, has stressed that Russia was clearly the “evil actor” in the now two-year-old war.

“Russia is the aggressor. They are invading Ukraine,” Burlison said.

Republican Congressman Mark Alford of Cass County has said that his opposition to a Ukraine aid package has nothing to do with being sympathetic to Russia but, rather, to a lack of clarity around whether the military assistance will serve its purpose.

“Our constituents deserve an answer as to what is the pathway to victory for Ukraine,” Alford said. “So we can tell our people, the people who are paying, what they're getting for their money.”

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