The Republican Party’s chaotic Senate primary in Missouri has divided into two early lanes: the ambitious and the indicted.
The more than half-dozen Republicans eyeing the state’s open Senate seat include, on the one hand, traditional candidates like a sitting state official and four members of the congressional delegation who are considering whether to make the leap to statewide politics.
On the other hand, there is a disgraced former governor who resigned his post halfway through his term, and a lawyer who became a celebrity on the right after brandishing a rifle at Black Lives Matter protesters, for which local prosecutors slapped him with felony charges.
It all sets up a messy and character-filled primary that the party will need to survive with enough unity — and electability — to keep retiring Sen. Roy Blunt’s seat in the GOP column next November.
Republicans have expressed alarm since March about former Gov. Eric Greitens, who was the first candidate to launch a bid two years after resigning his governorship amid allegations he sexually assaulted and blackmailed a woman. St. Louis prosecutors also charged Greitens in the case, though the charges were later dropped.
But the rest of the field has been slower to develop. Eric Schmitt, the state attorney general who won easily in 2020, launched his campaign in late March. Attorney Mark McCloskey announced his bid this week with a splashy video, which highlighted the incident when McCloskey and his wife pointed firearms at protesters.
Meanwhile, four members of the congressional delegation — Reps. Billy Long, Jason Smith, Ann Wagner and Vicky Hartzler — are seriously considering running but haven’t announced yet.
The catch for all of them: The more candidates who jump into the race, the more likely it is that something unpredictable could happen, or someone could win the nomination with just a sliver of support from a divided party.
Publicly, the GOP is relaxed about the situation. Wagner joked in a recent interview that the Republican House members have been looking for creative ways to determine which of them gets to run.
“We’ve done everything. … Rock, paper, scissors,” she said. “I was at an event in Utah with Jason Smith, and I challenged him to race down the mountain on skis.”
“It’s all very collegial,” she added. “We all just want what’s best for our state.”
But behind the scenes, there is some concern that Missouri could give the party heartburn next fall, despite its GOP lean. Some state legislators tried to marshal support for a bill that would create a runoff for party primaries in which no candidate gets majority support — which Democrats said was prompted by Greitens’ candidacy.
Hartzler appeared to acknowledge that ensuring the seat stays Republican is weighing on her mind. When asked which factors will help her make a decision about the race, she responded: “The level of support, if we can contribute, and the need. And we certainly need to take the Senate.”
Wagner said that “electability is important,” noting she has had to win competitive races to hang on to her district in the St. Louis suburbs.
“I have taken a punch, and I’ve landed one. Or two. Or three,” she said.
When Schmitt launched in March, he pointed out the two most recent Senate races in the state were much closer than the presidential contest — noting that he’s won his statewide campaigns by larger margins. In a recent interview, Schmitt touted himself as a supporter of Trump’s agenda and highlighted lawsuits he’s filed pushing back on the Biden White House and Democratic-controlled Washington.
“Biden seems intent on tearing all that down with a really radical agenda, so now a lot of my time is spent pushing back against that agenda,” Schmitt said.
The concern for some Republicans is a flash back to 2012, when then-Rep. Todd Akin lost to former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill after controversial comments about what Akin called “legitimate rape.”
Gregg Keller, a Republican strategist with experience in Missouri, said the jockeying early on has been about who has the ability to prevent Greitens from seizing the mantle.
“What we’re seeing now is the sausage-making process of Republicans and conservatives across the state beginning to hash out among themselves how we go about preventing that from happening,” Keller said. “Right now, you see a party that’s working through its options.”
James Harris, a veteran GOP strategist in Missouri, said McCloskey’s entrance could hurt Greitens, since the two are not currently in office and could appeal to a similar group of primary voters, as candidates stoking past controversy for political capital.
“He has a story to tell, and I think that hurts Eric Greitens quite a bit,” Harris said. “It takes oxygen out of that lane for someone like Eric.”
But like other Republicans, he doesn’t think the seat is in jeopardy if anyone other than Greitens wins the primary.
Greitens’ campaign pushed back on the suggestion he could lose the seat for his party.
“Gov. Greitens is the only America First candidate in this race who has actually defended President Trump’s policies,” Dylan Johnson, his campaign manager, said in a statement. “It’s no wonder establishment RINOs and Democrats are scared of a Sen. Greitens in Washington.”
The prospect of a prized Trump endorsement has already created some early jockeying among the field of potential candidates. Long, a former auctioneer with an outsized personality, and Smith, a conservative who is the Republican leader of the House Budget Committee, both recently trekked to Mar-a-Lago in search of campaign cash and the former president’s support.
“They’re all doing the pilgrimage down to Florida, and good for them,” said Wagner, who was endorsed by Trump in her congressional race last year.
In a brief interview last month, Smith called himself the “most loyal” Trump supporter among the potential competitors.
“I would love for the president to think I’m the best candidate for Senate in Missouri,” Smith said. “But I would never speak for him.”
McCloskey is making his first run for office. In a launch video, which included images of him brandishing his rifle, he framed himself as a defender against liberals. McCloskey and his wife currently faces felony gun charges for the 2020 incident with protesters, but GOP Gov. Mike Parson has said he will pardon them if they are convicted.
“All we hear is talk, and nothing ever changes. It just seemed to me that people have to stand up,” McCloskey said in an interview on Fox News announcing his run — in which he called it a “fake news slur” that he had been a Democrat, though he had previously donated to some, including McCaskill in 2012.
He solicited campaign cash during the interview on Fox News, saying the “left’s going to come down on us like a ton of bricks.” And his campaign says he has raised more than $250,000 since launching his bid.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said McCloskey would make a “big splash” and is probably “well known in the state given the circumstances of last year.” But Hawley downplayed concerns about a crowded primary leading to a chaotic race.
“I don’t know how anybody could control that,” Hawley said. “People will do what they want to do.”
For the House members, they see no reason to make any sudden movements. The filing deadline isn’t until next year, and most of them would rather wait and see how the rest of the field shapes up before they make a decision.
“If I can win or not, I have to decide that,” Long said. “I’m not going to get in to be a stalking horse for somebody.”
But if the primary does become packed, it will at least be familiar territory for Smith, who emerged from a crowded, three-hour-long convention to win the nomination for his seat in a special election eight years ago.
“A lot of them were friends, and I’m still friends with them,” Smith said. “It was crazy.”