Leading Republican candidates in Missouri U.S. Senate race skip Springfield debate

U.S. Rep. Billy Long, St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey and state Senate President Dave Schatz showed up to debate inflation, immigration

By: - May 31, 2022 11:23 pm

State Sen. Dave Schatz, left, speaks Tuesday night at the Greene County Republican Party Senate debate while, from left, U.S. Rep. Billy Long and St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey listen. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

SPRINGFIELD – At the end of Tuesday night’s Republican Senate debate, which was skipped by the three candidates leading in the polls, U.S. Rep. Billy Long asked the audience of Greene County Republicans to remember who was absent when they vote.

Long, state Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz and St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey spent 90 minutes answering questions about topics including inflation, immigration, the war in Ukraine and abortion. Former Gov. Eric Greitens, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S Rep. Vicky Hartzler didn’t participate in the debate.

“I hope you appreciate that we, the three of us, are not afraid to come here and take questions from the moderator, and visit with you all, and take questions from the press,” said Long, a Springfield resident.

Over the course of the debate, the three candidates found many areas of agreement. They all blamed President Joe Biden’s administration for the worst inflation since the early 1980s, they all want to restore former President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies and they all support making abortion illegal.

When it came to the war in the Ukraine, McCloskey said the U.S. shouldn’t be supporting the Ukrainian defense.

Long noted he had opposed both aid bills for Ukraine in Congress and felt the latest, for $40 billion, was money that could be better spent at home.

Schatz, however, blamed the war on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he called “a thug.” He said the war is responsible for the high fertilizer prices Missouri farmers are paying to support their crops.

“That is a direct result of what is going on in Ukraine,” Schatz said.

The event was held under rules that discouraged any direct attacks. Moderator Darrell Moore invoked Ronald Reagan’s words, often called the GOP’s 11th commandment, that Republicans should not criticize other Republicans.

All six of the major candidates for the GOP Senate nomination were invited, Greene County Republican Chairwoman Danette Proctor said in an interview before the debate. It was originally scheduled for June 9, but when organizers learned Congress would be in session that day, meaning Long and Hartzler could not make it, the date was changed.

Schmitt said he couldn’t make it but provided no explanation, Proctor said. 

Hartzler declined the invitation because she was holding a fundraiser with U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, Proctor said, while it took several attempts before Greitens campaign said he would not attend. People will understand that Hartzler could not attend because her schedule was set before the new date was chosen, she said.

Greene County provides the third-largest number of votes in a statewide Republican primary, and southwest Missouri is traditionally the most Republican area of the state.

Skipping Tuesday’s debate, Proctor said, “will hurt the ones with no excuse.”

The fundraiser with Hawley was scheduled before the new date for the debate was set, said Mike Hafner, Hartzler’s campaign manager. 

“Our scheduling conflict is a series of fundraisers with Josh Hawley throughout Missouri that were previously scheduled before the forum organizers changed the date,” Hafner said.

Schmitt, who along with Greitens has led at least one recent public poll, doesn’t want to share the stage with a crowd of competitors, campaign spokesman Rich Chrismer wrote in an email to The Independent.  

“Attorney General Eric Schmitt has already done two debates with the field of candidates, including one in Southwest Missouri,” Chrismer wrote. “This is a two-candidate race and Eric Schmitt looks forward to the opportunity to debate Eric Greitens.”

Schatz, in an interview after the debate, said he wasn’t surprised that Greitens did not attend because he has avoided most multi-candidate events. As for Schmitt’s focus on Greitens, Schatz, who has put $2 million of his own money into his campaign, said it is a mistake.

“If Schmitt thinks the only person he needs to debate is Eric Greitens, he’s sadly mistaken,” Schatz said.

Greitens’ campaign wouldn’t give a reason for skipping the debate. His decision not to attend was made in early May. About two weeks earlier, Moore, who is executive director of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, was appointed a special prosecutor for a case involving Greitens’ ride-along with Kansas City police that was seen as politicizing the department.

The Kansas City Star reported the April appointment on Tuesday. Moore, as deputy attorney general under Hawley, led the 2018 investigation into Greitens’ use of the Confide app that destroyed messages. 

Former state Sen. Jay Wasson, who is running in the 7th Congressional District to replace Long, said many voters are still undecided in southwest Missouri.

“I think a lot of people are still trying to make up their minds,” Wasson said. “I am not hearing a lot of ‘this is my guy’ at this point.”

This article has been updated since it was initially published.

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.

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