How the reddening of Missouri has shaped both parties’ 2022 Senate primary

April 30, 2021 8:55 am

Missouri Senate hopefuls Eric Schmitt, left, and Eric Greitens (campaign photos).

What does it take to be a successful candidate for high office in Missouri these days?

We might consider that question through the lens of Missouri’s 2022 U.S. Senate race. 

One thing it used to take to be a successful candidate was relative moderation. 

It was helpful to be somewhere near the middle of the political spectrum. Kit Bond, Jack Danforth, Tom Eagleton, Mel Carnahan, Roy Blunt — most of the giants of modern Missouri politics have carved out a space just a tick or two left or right of the center. 

While no one ever doubted John Ashcroft’s staunch conservative credentials, he was a relatively pragmatic governor presiding over solid Democratic legislative majorities. When, as a U.S. senator, he began emphasizing harder-edged conservatism while exploring a possible 2000 presidential campaign, Missouri voters unceremoniously voted him out (Of course, he had the last laugh, soon becoming U.S. Attorney General).

A second characteristic of yesteryear’s successful statewide politicians was a consensus-oriented style stressing governance over politics. 

Bond, Danforth, Eagleton, Carnahan, Blunt and Ashcroft campaigned during the election cycle, but then mostly focused on governing until the next election. They weren’t bomb throwers. They didn’t spend their time and energy riling up their base against the other side’s boogeymen. They were gentlemen who smoothed over personal and policy differences instead of driving in wedges.

The main reason voters elected them is that Missouri was a bellwether whose political vacillations tended to echo national partisan tides, where any statewide official knew that a wave could sweep them out (as Bond and Blunt discovered in ‘76 and ‘92 when voters reacted to President Ford’s post-Nixon pardon unpopularity and President George H.W. Bush’s recession). Both parties understood this and nominated candidates with appeal to the independent voters who decided statewide races.

Today, aspiring Republicans face a very different challenge. Now that Missouri is becoming a reliably Republican state, most primary voters scarcely consider which candidate would make a strong general election contender. In their view — buttressed by statewide results the last few election cycles — the primary is the whole ballgame.

Accordingly, this cycle’s Republican Senate aspirants evince no palpable interest in appealing to general election voters. The six people who have entered or are seriously considering entering this year’s Senate primary are either Trump wannabes, or doing their best to pretend to be.

Because scant consideration is given to the general election, moderate and/or independent voters are essentially excluded from the calculation. The constraint that kept the Bonds and Blunts from drifting too far right – or employing a political style based on consensus rather than confrontation – has vanished.

The subtle nuance of a Blunt interview, where a discerning observer could detect notes appealing to a wide variety of audiences, is passe among party activists. 

Instead, Eric Greitens is doing his best to emulate the truculent Trumpian bombast that has — love him or hate him — powered Sen. Josh Hawley’s meteoric rise to national prominence. 

Listening to Greitens’ bellicosity, Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s pledge to wake up every day and sue Joe Biden, and other possible contenders — including lawyer Mark McCloskey, who achieved national notoriety not through any sort of policy pronouncement or advocacy, but by literally pointing a semi-automatic rifle at Black Lives Matter protesters — indicates that polling suggests primary voters want, above all else, a “fighter.”

More than a few talented and substantive public servants, including current statewide officials with a track record of crafting major policies, wanted no part of the Senate race. Maybe they’d rather be governor someday. Or maybe they just didn’t want to spend the next 16 months on the campaign trail untethered from reality and pretending that the last election was stolen from Donald Trump — as roughly 75% of Missouri Republican primary voters believe, according to recent polling in the Missouri Scout newsletter. 

Ironically, some of those deciding to stand down have far more legitimate conservative credibility than ex-Democrats Greitens and McCloskey, who have substituted symbolic culture war grievance and Trump sycophancy for genuine conservative substance. 

Marine Corps veteran Lance Kunce, left, and former state Sen. Scott Sifton

The Democratic primary field has been shaped by some of the same forces as the Republicans’, which for opposite reasons have had a similar effect: those who would’ve been considered top prospects by the standards of the last half-century of Missouri politics remain on the bench.

The Democratic field is, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, a story of the dog that didn’t bark. 

Top Democratic prospects — Claire McCaskill, Jason Kander and Nicole Galloway — immediately took a pass after witnessing the slow-motion bloodbath of the last three election cycles. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost Missouri by almost 19 points, helping drag down two strong candidates — Kander with his viral gun ad and national donor base and Chris Koster with endorsements from traditionally Republican groups such as the Farm Bureau and NRA.

The next two cycles were even rougher. In 2018, McCaskill, the most talented Democrat of her generation, lost to upstart Hawley. In 2020, Biden lost by 15 and Galloway by 17, with the down-ballot statewide candidates losing by 20-24 points.

Three Democrats have announced: Tim Shepard, a gay rights activist who has raised roughly $8,000 since entering the race; attorney and former state senator Scott Sifton, and Lucas Kunce, a lawyer who left Missouri for the Marines after a losing race for state representative in 2006. 

Sifton is a very capable public servant who was one of Democrats’ most effective legislators in the modern era of Republican majorities (2001-present). He’s smart, thoughtful and diligent. Having worked his way up from school board member, to school board president, to state House member, to state senator (from which he termed out this January), he’s paid his dues. He’s got the sort of background that, in another era, would have naturally led to statewide success.  

Unfortunately for him, after the bruising defeats of the last three cycles, it seems that Democrats need a special candidate to win. Generic Democrat no longer cuts it. And while he was an excellent legislator, little in his background, issue focus or stump persona stands out.

At a time when introductory videos can generate millions of likes and an accompanying deluge of donations, at press time, Sifton’s launch video tweet had garnered 648 likes. While the Internet is unpredictable — even the most nondescript candidate might somehow become a political Honey Badger — Sifton seems about as likely to go viral as herpes in a convent. 

So far the populist Kunce, whose spiked rhetoric is infused with the same pugnacity as the aforementioned Republicans, has shown more of a knack for attracting attention. The upstart’s launch video attracted nearly 10 times as many views as Sifton’s, which helped power his fundraising to a near-tie with establishment-preferred Sifton. 

The reddening of rural Missouri has shifted the Democratic primary from a pan-ideological affair full of rural and exurban moderates to one dominated by major-metro progressives, and remaining Democratic primary voters may crave a “fighter” as well.


In sum, Missouri’s recent Republican slant has profoundly affected the Senate field. 

In a bygone era, Blunt would have coasted to re-election, and if he had chosen retirement, a candidate like Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe may have run. But in today’s Trump-centric climate with Missouri Republicans feeling their oats, neither relished doing what it took — i.e., perpetuating the Big Lie of a stolen 2020 election — to woo the primary electorate.

No one has any doubt that Greitens, whose career options have narrowed to U.S. Senator or website designer now that he has become toxic to the publishers who once offered him six-figure advances and companies who hired him for motivational speeches, is shameless enough to feed that beast in order to achieve his comeback.

And few doubt that McCloskey would mind a year of donor-subsidized advertising (for his personal injury law practice) while tossing red meat to the BLM-hating base. 

But can Schmitt, who in the past could have comfortably run on his profile as an effective center-right state senator and Treasurer but has now adopted a pugilistic posture, rise above this circus while holding onto enough base voters to win the primary? We shall see. 

The only thing we can say for certain is that Missouri’s reddening combined with Trump’s continued influence hasn’t just led once-successful Democrats to stand down. It also helped push the incumbent aside – and discourage his ideological and stylistic heirs from attempting to succeed him.

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Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, which supports development of safe, affordable housing. Previously, he taught public policy at Dartmouth College and The New School, represented the city of St. Louis in the Senate, and wrote three books: Trading Places, on U.S. party alignment; Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, a memoir and argument for reform; and Ferguson in Black and White, an historical analysis of St. Louis inequality. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Washington University.