As Missouri Republicans gathered at the Westin Crown Center this weekend, the burgeoning field of Senate candidates schmoozed and courted the party faithful with swag, receptions and plain old personal attention.
Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s Friday night hospitality suite featured an accordion player. Rep. Vicky Hartzler mingled with the Saturday morning crowd. St. Louis lawyer Mark McCloskey came with “Never Back Down” bumper stickers.
But one candidate, former Gov. Eric Greitens, was nowhere to be found.
Greitens had instead headed to Arizona to survey a review of ballots condemned by Republican election officials but trumpeted by supporters of former President Donald Trump promoting baseless claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
The presence of Schmitt, Hartzler and McCloskey — and Greitens’ absence — at the Missouri GOP’s signature annual gathering underscores the start of what is effectively a primary within the primary. As Greitens spurns a Republican establishment that has largely turned against him, the other candidates are competing to become the dominant choice of party activists, some of whom fear the former governor, beset by scandal, could put GOP control of the seat in danger.
It’s a competition so far centered largely on Trump and the ability to advance what Republicans call his America First agenda: a loose collection of policies and attitudes that emphasize tough restrictions at the southern border, hostility to measures targeting climate change and a fighting posture against “cancel culture.”
“I think that Greitens is trying to carve out the Trump lane and I don’t know that people are going to directly attack him so much as push him out of that lane and try to take his place,” said Jean Evans, a former Missouri GOP executive director.
The question of who is the strongest competitor against Greitens is likely to remain unsettled for some time. More candidates are expected to join ahead of the March 2022 filing deadline, with potential contenders including Reps. Jason Smith, Ann Wagner and Billy Long, who tiptoed up to the edge of announcing in an interview Saturday.
The answer holds enormous consequences for Republicans. The power of the party establishment to defeat Greitens may rest on the ability of one candidate to consolidate support.
Under one scenario, Greitens is weakened by a torrent of negative ads that focus attention on the allegations of violent sexual abuse and blackmail against him. McCloskey, best known for brandishing a firearm at Black Lives Matter protesters, further siphons away support. And a mainstream Republican, perhaps boosted by Trump’s endorsement, wins the primary.
“I think McCloskey is much more a threat to Eric Greitens than any other candidate in the race,” said James Harris, a Jefferson City-based Republican consultant.
‘Trump’ six times in one speech
In a worst-case scenario for Greitens’ opponents, a large primary field without a strong anti-Greitens alternative could fracture the vote and allow the former governor to win with only 20%. Missouri Republicans would be left with a nominee loathed by a significant portion of the party as control of the Senate hangs in the balance.
“I mean, we have to win Missouri. We’ve got to win this seat. This is our seat, we should have no trouble holding this seat,” Sen. Josh Hawley told a meeting of the Missouri Republican State Committee on Saturday.
Hawley didn’t specifically address Greitens or any other candidate, saying only that he planned to do his “due diligence” on the contenders before making a decision. But in March he said he stood by calling on Greitens to resign in 2018.
Hawley told the GOP meeting he spoke with Trump the day Sen. Roy Blunt announced his retirement.
“He said, ‘We’ve got to win in Missouri’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir, we do,’” Hawley said, recounting the conversation. “So he’s very keenly interested in this and I’m glad that he is.”
In a state where Trump remains extremely popular among Republicans, the Senate candidates are looking for any possible way to tie themselves to the former president. They are playing up Trump-era accomplishments, demonizing Democrats and talking the language of cultural grievance deployed by the former president.
At the same time, they are glossing over Trump’s fumbling pandemic response, his two impeachments and incendiary remarks ahead of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by several hundred of his supporters.
Greitens has gone to great lengths to signal he is a candidate in the Trump mold. He’s maintained a near-constant presence on right-wing, pro-Trump media, including hosting a show on the America’s Voice TV network and announcing his candidacy on Fox News.
Over the weekend, he offered a kind of counterprogramming to Lincoln Days on social media. On Saturday morning, he posted a video to Twitter as he traveled through Maricopa County, Ariz., on his way to the ballot review.
“Then later this afternoon, we’re headed down to Pinal County. We’re going to be on the frontlines with our law enforcement officers figuring out what is exactly happening with Kamala Harris and Joe Biden’s border crisis they have created,” Greitens said. “It’s going to be an awesome day.”
Hartzler and Schmitt are endeavoring to show they can be just as Trumpy as Greitens but without the scandal. They hope not only to win over voters, but Trump himself, whose endorsement in the primary could have a huge effect on fundraising and support.
Hartzler, who ousted 17-term Democratic incumbent Ike Skelton in 2010 to become the first Republican to win the 4th congressional district since the 1950s, launched her Senate campaign on Thursday at the Lee’s Summit gun store Frontier Justice. In front of store signage that reads “Faith Family Freedom,” she mentioned Trump at least six times in her speech.
“It’s up to us to get our country back on the right direction,” Hartzler said. “We’ve seen it under President Trump: record low unemployment, stable inflation, energy independence, the border was protected, jobs were being brought back to America, we rebuilt our military.”
Tough on China
Like Greitens, Schmitt, a former state senator, also announced his candidacy in March on Fox News, a favorite channel of the former president. Echoing Trump, he has taken a tough stance on China, including suing the Chinese government and other Chinese institutions over the origins of COVID-19.
Schmitt told Ruthless Podcast, a conservative show co-hosted by a former chief of staff to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, that he spent “a lot of my time when President Trump was in office defending that America first agenda with, you know, border security and energy independence and unprecedented prosperity.”
Long and Smith — two other potential candidates at Lincoln Days — are both publicly touting their Trump-like records and connections even as they hold off, barely, on official announcements.
In an interview, Long said he has “a lot of interest” in the race and that “I’m getting really close on it.”
Long said he’s weighing whether he can win and compared himself to Trump in 2016.
“I’ve got the same amount of energy as Donald Trump,” Long said. “I mean, I will be in every county, I guarantee ya I will be in every county.”
Both Long and Smith have spoken with Trump in recent weeks about the Senate race. Long traveled to Mar-a-Lago for a fundraiser and Smith visited the former president in New York.
Smith said in a Fox News appearance earlier this week that he would put his conservative record “up against anyone.”
“And I’ll also put my record of standing up for the America First agenda and supporting President Trump and not running away when things got tough amongst any of the candidates,” he said.
The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed reporting