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Former Missouri U.S. Sen. John Danforth wants the GOP to move away from Trump

 Former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth, who is seeking an independent candidate for U.S. Senate in 2022. (Photo from Dowd Bennett law firm)
Dowd Bennett law firm
Former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth said he's not leaving the Republican Party but is trying to shift it toward the political center.

Former Missouri U.S. Sen. John Danforth has witnessed lots of changes to politics over his lifetime.

Danforth, 87, who served in the Senate from 1976 to 1995 and as Missouri’s attorney general from 1969 to 1976, was at the cutting edge of turning Missouri from a state that voted for Democrats for statewide posts to a bellwether that was somewhat evenly divided between the parties. But Danforth is now decrying a force that helped Missouri Republicans take unprecedented power throughout the state: former President Donald Trump.

“It's possible to be a Trump Republican. It's possible to be a Reagan Republican. But the two are not compatible. They're inconsistent,” Danforth said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio’s Politically Speaking podcast. “It's really impossible to be both at the same time.”

Trump’s dominance over the Republican Party is part of the reason Danforth joined Our Republican Legacy, a group that includes other GOP figures such as former Vice President Dan Quayle, former House Speaker John Boehner and former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

Former President Donald Trump discusses 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
Former President Donald Trump discusses the media on June 25, 2022, at a rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill.

Our Republican Legacy not only condemns Trump for his behavior after President Joe Biden won the 2020 election but for some of his policies — including his embrace of economic protectionism and isolationism. The organization slams both Trump and Biden for their spending policies, as well as “the divisive tactics of both right and left that divide ‘us against them’ by exploiting emotions of grievance and rage.”

“America has benefited from having a responsible conservative party, it doesn't have that anymore,” Danforth said. “The Republican Party has gone very right wing. It really isn't conservative. It’s very far out. There's an angriness about it, really a meanness of spirit about it. And it's the opposite of anything that I was ever a part of.”

Laying the foundation

Our Republican Legacy is not a political action committee or a lobbying organization. It’s not planning on supporting any candidates this cycle — and it’s not trying to prop up a third-party candidate to challenge Trump and Biden.

“We are a two-party country, and when American politics was able to function, we had a lot of overlap between the two parties. We had a center-right party, which is the Republican Party, a center-left party, which is the Democratic Party,” Danforth said. “There was a center in American politics. Now that center is basically gone. It's been obliterated. In the Republican Party for sure.”

Because Republicans aren’t competing for the center and focusing on energizing their base, Danforth said the Democratic Party is free to “turn to the left, which I think they have done.”

“If we can restore a Republican Party that's responsible, that’s centrist and that appeals, as Lincoln said, ‘to the better angels of our nature’ and not to these feelings of resentment and hostility, I think that would also have a positive effect on the Democratic Party, and a positive effect on American politics and, really, the American psyche.”

Republican voters, though, have backed Trump to be their presidential nominee for three straight election cycles, calling into question whether Danforth’s desire for the party to move away from his ideology is popular among the base.

Danforth contends that the anti-Trump wing of the Republican Party has “not done a good job of presenting the clear differentiation between the right wing and conservatism.”

“And those differences are very real and very strong and very principled,” he said. “But you have to present voters with that choice.”

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.

Hawley vs. Kunce

Missouri has a history of electing people with populist tendencies to high offices — including U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley. The first-term lawmaker has gained attention over the past few years for criticizing large technology corporations and cultivating support with organized labor members, while embracing a less interventionist foreign policy than his predecessors.

Danforth backed Hawley’s first Senate bid in 2018. But Danforth turned against him after Hawley objected to Biden’s win in Pennsylvania. He said that he had hoped that someone would run against Hawley this cycle as a Republican, but he’s unopposed in the primary.

“We've become such a red state that I suppose winning the primary is tantamount to getting elected,” Danforth said.

Lucas Kunce, a Democratic candidate for the 2024 Senate race, holds a rally on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, at the District 9 Machinist Hall in Bridgeton, Mo. Kunce faces two other candidates in the Democratic primary — St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell and Missouri State Senator Karla May — in a race to challenge Republican incumbent Josh Hawley.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Lucas Kunce, a Democratic candidate for the 2024 Senate race, holds a rally on Aug. 28, 2023, at the District 9 Machinist Hall in Bridgeton.

He noted that Hawley’s potential Democratic opponent, Lucas Kunce, holds populist views, so Danforth said voting in November will be a challenge for him.

“I kind of know what I'm not going to do, but I don't know yet what I'm going to do,” Danforth said. “So it's very, very difficult.”

Still, Danforth doesn’t think that the results of the 2024 race will determine where each of the major political parties goes in the future. If Trump wins, he won’t be able to run again in 2028 because of constitutionally mandated term limits.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well, this 2024 election is existential.’ I don't really see it that way,” Danforth said. “America is basically a strong country. I see it as a country that wants to restore its equilibrium. I see the American people as people who want to live together and not just constantly have the red flag waved in front of them.”

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