Lesser-known candidates struggle for spotlight in Missouri Senate primaries
Republicans have 21 candidates in all while there are 11 names on the Democratic Party ballot for the Aug. 2 election
C.W. Gardner, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who has made mocking better-known opponents in satirical videos a major part of his campaign, after filing on Feb. 22 (Campaign photo via Facebook).
You know Eric and Eric and David and Billy, Mark and Lucas and Trudy and Vicky.
But do you recall the rest of the field at all?
If not, it might be surprising to find out that Missouri’s Senate race this year drew 34 entrants.
Only four will make it to the general election, including two – the Libertarian Party’s Jonathan Dine of Kansas City and Constitution Party’s Paul Venable of Lincoln – running unopposed in the Aug. 2 primary.
The other two will come out of Republican and Democratic primaries. On the GOP side, there are 21 candidates, with six registering in public polls. The Democratic Party primary has 11 candidates, with three running full-scale campaigns.
For the remaining major party hopefuls, being ignored when party groups send out speaking invitations and reveling in a chance for 10 minutes on a talk radio program is the rule.
Some earnestly expect to win the nomination. Some have a sense of humor about their position and set expectations accordingly.
“If I were somehow able to get 1%, it would be the only time in my life I was a 1 percenter,” said C.W. Gardner of St. Louis, listed sixth on the Republican ballot. He uses social media to mock the major GOP hopefuls and he’s not shy about what he thinks of them.
“They have no ideas, no legitimate policies and all they can do is manufacture culture wars because they have nothing,” he said in an interview with The Independent.
He proposes a “pot for potholes” program that legalizes marijuana at the federal level and taxes commerce in pot to eradicate pavement imperfections. In a video promoting his support for the program, he derides the “general incompetence and ridiculous culture wars” of the leading candidates and takes them on in turn.
“While (U.S. Rep.) Vicky Hartzler thinks it is moral to harbor and spew hate against gay and trans people simply for being alive, I’m fixing things,” he says.
The Independent searched for news stories, past electoral history, campaign websites and social media accounts to research the candidates. Most have had little written about them; Gardner’s satirical campaign was featured by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Wellsville union construction laborer Patrick Lewis was the subject of a story in the Montgomery Standard.
But for the rest, their name usually appears as part of a list of others in the field.
Some, like Lewis, are making their second or third bid for office and some are newcomers to politics who feel that if they can get voters to listen, they will win. Lewis, who is listed first on the ballot, ran for state representative in 2008 as a Democrat and took 33% of the vote.
He’s running as a Republican now, he said, because the major parties have changed roles since he was young.
“I made more money when Trump was in than I have any other time,” Lewis said. “Mom and Dad always said the Democrats were for the poor people and Republicans were for the rich people. Right now, I think it is the other way around.”
What he offers, Lewis said, is the perspective of someone who has to make a living on a moderate income.
“The career politicians, I don’t think, understand the struggles of the working family,” Lewis said.
One candidate in the race, Bernie Mowinski of Sunrise Beach, has run almost a dozen times for state and local offices, always losing. But he is undaunted in his pursuit of office and believes he will win when people understand the simplicity of his message.
“I am no Abraham Lincoln but I am going to keep trying until people get that MO WINS if they elect me,” Mowinski said, the same message as the campaign sign that adorns his pickup truck.
Mowinski, a retired sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, is fifth on the Republican ballot. His first race was for state representative in 2002, placing fourth in a five-way race. He ran against Hartzler in the 4th Congressional District primary in 2012, taking 16% of the vote, and against U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt in the 2016 Republican primary, taking 2.8% of the vote.
The gridlock in Washington must end, Mowinski said.
“I want the position because I want the United States to become united,” Mowinski said. “This partisan stuff across the aisle is bull. They have forgotten they are elected for America, it is the United States of America.”
The newcomers are just as sure that if they could be heard, they could win.
Curtis Vaughn of Springfield is 34, single and works as a parking valet and for a wine retailer. He’s never been involved in politics before. He’s listed last on the Republican ballot.
“I am learning all of this on the fly,” Vaughn said.
He encountered the local Republican Party establishment’s aversion to making room for lesser-known candidates at a May 31 debate. Former Gov. Eric Greitens, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Hartzler, leading in the polls, skipped the event, while U.S. Rep. Billy Long, state Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz and attorney Mark McCloskey appeared.
Vaughn said he was told very forcefully that he was unwelcome. He said he alerted local media that he had a rebuttal to the debaters, but found none who would take the time.
“I got on the phone,” he said, “and they acted like I didn’t exist.”
His spur to get in the race, Vaughn said, came on March 17 after the bombing of a theater in Mariupol left hundreds dead and the messages from Republican Senate candidates were about cultural issues.
He encountered, he said, Hartzler’s ad claiming a transgender swimmer who came in first in an NCAA women’s competition was an example of “men pretending to be women.”
“She went after an American, a transgender American she wanted to attack,” Vaughn said. “She didn’t condemn the war crimes but she did condemn an American.”
The list of first-time candidates includes Darrell McClanahan of Schell City, who has used his social media to target Greitens. He is 20th on the ballot.
McClanahan’s campaign symbol is the flag used by the 1861 Missouri State Guard, the army raised by the pro-slavery state government fighting federal forces in alliance with Confederate troops. It is a white cross on a navy blue field, with a red border.
McClanahan said he considers it a symbol of defiance, not racism.
“I don’t agree with slavery or what John Brown did and Civil War Confederate veterans are considered equal to any veteran,” McClanahan said.
McClanahan faces several felony charges originating in Ozark County, including harassment, property damage and theft.
“I will have my day in court and believe I will be exonerated,” McClanahan said.
On issues, McClanahan is against aid to Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, against vaccinations and for police accountability.
“We have to have a conversation in America,” he said. “Black Lives Matter, they get a lot of things wrong but the one thing they do have right is accountability.”
While most Republicans label themselves conservatives, candidate Deshon Porter of St. Louis, seventh on the ballot, describes himself as a moderate. He’s Republican, he said, because it fits his personal beliefs.
“I don’t agree with abortion, so I am pro-life,” he said. “I don’t agree with those who want to take away Second Amendment rights.”
He admires the late Sen. Bob Dole for his humor, he said, and his achievements.
“He championed people who are disabled and with his leadership he was one of those instrumental in getting the Americans With Disabilities Act,” Porter said of Dole, who was severely wounded in Italy in World War II.
Porter ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2018 when he lived in Springfield. He now lives in St. Louis and plans to run for governor or lieutenant governor in 2024 if he is unsuccessful in his Senate bid.
Age 48, Porter said he is still recovering from the sudden death of his wife in 2016. While it is a struggle, he said, he will devote his time to reading every bill in the Senate.
“I am not an establishment candidate,” he said. “If they are looking for someone who is genuine and for the people, look for me. I will work for the people each and every day that I serve.”
On the Democratic side, the biographies of all 11 candidates have several similarities like the hopefuls struggling for attention in the GOP race.
Of the six candidates registering in public polls in the GOP race, five have held or now hold major offices. Not one of the Democratic candidates has ever held public office and only a few have even been on a ballot.
A SurveyUSA poll last month showed 63% of Democrats are undecided, with the three candidates running full-scale campaigns – attorney Lucas Kunce, nurse and Busch beer heiress Trudy Busch Valentine and businessman Spencer Toder at 10%, 8% and 3%, respectively.
Retired teacher Lewis Rolen of St. Louis, who had 1% in the survey of 500 voters, said the race is wide open. He is listed first on the Democratic ballot.
“With my family history, with 30 years of teaching social studies, I am as good as any of them,” Rolen said.
His father, also named Lewis Rolen, was the first Black to run in the Democratic primary for mayor of St. Louis. He can trace his family to pre-Civil War Missouri, where they were enslaved in Miller County.
He wants to cut military spending, ban assault rifles and require licensing of gun owners.
“I am an Elizabeth Warren-type of progressive,” Rolen said.
Valentine is a flawed candidate and Kunce changes his views to fit his current campaign, he said.
Valentine was crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty in the 1977 Veiled Prophet Ball in St. Louis, run by an organization event that excluded Black and Jewish members until 1979. She has apologized for participating in the event.
Kunce described himself as “a pretty conservative Democrat,” who opposed abortion during a 2006 interview with the Yale Daily News as he sought a Jefferson City seat in the Missouri House. Now, Rolen notes, Kunce says he supports abortion rights.
“I really believe he has talked to some political consultants,” Rolen said. “Who goes to the military for 15 years and comes back talking like Elizabeth Warren?”
The Democratic primary could be won with as few as 150,000 votes, Rolen said. The field represents a historic first, with five Black candidates, the most ever in a Democratic primary, he said.
“In August, most of the energy, obviously, is on the Republican side,” Rolen said. “With all the energy and the large number of Republican voters, it would take the Black community to come out for me.”
The Democratic nominee will enter the fall campaign with a disadvantage, if recent state political trends continue. Republicans have won all but one statewide election held since 2012.
The large undecided numbers show the party has problems and no clear voice, Rolen said.
“The party itself, let’s be honest,” Rolen said, “should have had somebody in the queue who is ready to run.”
The major party candidates for U.S. Senate, in ballot order, with their current occupation, if known. Missouri has an open primary, where any registered voter can choose any party’s ballot in August.
Patrick A. Lewis of Wellsville, union construction laborer; Eric Schmitt of Kirkwood, attorney general of Missouri; Billy Long of Springfield, member of Congress since 2011; Eric Greitens of Chesterfield, disgraced former governor; Bernie Mowinski of Sunrise Beach, a veteran and perennial candidate in state and local elections; C.W. Gardner of St. Louis, doorman; Deshon Porter of St. Louis; Vicky Hartzler of Harrisonville, a member of Congress since 2011; Dave Sims of Kansas City, employee of Kansas City government; Mark McCloskey of St. Louis, attorney; Eric McElroy of Tunas, comedian and author; Dennis Lee Chilton of Springfield; Robert Allen of Chesterfield; Dave Schatz of Sullivan, president pro tem of the Missouri Senate; Hartford Tunnell of Carthage, retired professor; Kevin Schepers of Fenton; Rickey Joiner of Florissant, barber and business owner; Robert Olson of Springfield; Russel Pealer Breyfogle Jr. of Columbia, retired social worker; Darrell Leon McClanahan III of Schell City, stay-at-home dad; and Curtis Vaughn of Springfield, valet parking attendant and liquor salesman.
Lewis Rolen of St. Louis, retired teacher; Gena Ross of Platte City, associate professor of business; Carla Coffee Wright of St. Louis, founder of St. Louis Inner City Cultural Center Enterprise; Josh Shipp of St. Louis; Spencer Toder of St. Louis, business owner; Lucas Kunce of Independence, Marine Reserve officer; Jewel Kelly of Festus, a real estate agent; Clarence (Clay) Taylor of St. Louis; Pat Kelly of St. Louis, environmental engineer and patent attorney; Trudy Busch Valentine of Clayton, nurse and Busch beer fortune heiress; and Ronald (Ron) William Harris of Kansas City, truck driver.
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