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In race to fill Missouri’s Senate seat, both parties’ voters face crowded fields

Three Republicans are in a “dead heat” for the lead among 21 Senate candidates, while two Democrats are the favorites an 11-person race to gain their party’s nomination for the seat.

ST. LOUIS (CN) — Former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, or rejection, could prove to be the tipping point for Missouri Republicans hoping to replace the retiring U.S. Senator Roy Blunt.

Former Governor Eric Greitens, U.S. Representative Vicky Hartzler and Attorney General Eric Schmitt are the clear frontrunners among the GOP’s 21 options. Polls from Real Clear Politics and 538.com have consistently shown Greitens and Hartzler at 26% apiece, with Schmidt at 25% of the vote.

“It’s an absolute dead heat,” said Kenneth Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University, in a phone interview.

All three candidates have vied for a Trump endorsement, which would carry weight in Missouri’s extremely conservative rural communities, where many voters hold a favorable view of the former president. Trump won the Missouri by double-figure margins in both 2016 and 2020.

An endorsement has yet to come from Trump, but he did take the unique step of publicly rebuking Hartzler in a post on his social media platform, Truth Social, on July 8.

“You can forget about Vicky Hartzler for the Senate from the Great State of Missouri,” Trump wrote in his post. “She called me this morning asking for my Endorsement, much as she has on many other occasions. I was anything but positive in that I don’t think she has what it takes to take on the Radical Left Democrats, together with their partner in the destruction of our Country, the Fake News Media and, of course, the deceptive & foolish RINOs.”

“RINO” is a slang term for “Republican in name only,” referring to a GOP politician who does not strictly vote along party lines or is otherwise deemed insufficiently loyal to the party.

Hartzler told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Trump’s announcement came as a surprise.

“I think he listened to some of my opponents’ lies and bought into them, which is unfortunate,” she told the Post-Dispatch.

Debra Leiter, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, said such rejections are atypical.

“In this kind of a close race, that is going to hurt her, hurt her enough to bring her down in the polls,” Leiter told Courthouse News. “Trump has sway in Missouri.”

It is unclear whether Trump will issue an endorsement before the Aug. 2 primary election, but an endorsement for either Greitens or Schmidt could tilt the scales in an election where none of the frontrunners have stood out.

No debates have been held, and the candidates have used the majority of their television ads to attempt to show they are more conservative than their opponents.

Greitens rode the Trump wave to the Missouri Governor’s Mansion in 2016. Like Trump, he marketed himself as a political outsider. And, like the twice-impeached former president, he is mired in scandal.

Greitens resigned as governor amid allegations that he extorted a former mistress with nude photos of her, and he currently is litigating a contentious divorce with lurid accusations of spousal and child abuse. None of these scandals have hurt him in the polls.

“It does suggest that a lot of people have become desensitized to a lot of the moral and ethical issues we have been worried about in the past, that their sole focus is on finding a candidate who does the things they want,” said Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri at Columbia political science professor, in an interview. “I think for no more than a third of the Republican voters in the primary, they’re comfortable with Greitens even if they don’t like some of his personal antics. … If you look back at the General Assembly when Greitens was in office, most of those Republicans didn’t come out and back him when he ran into trouble, which is why he had to step down. So, I think there is a limit to how many people are comfortable with him, but it’s still surprising.”

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Greitens doubled down on the controversy with a social media campaign video that showed him hunting down RINOs with assault weapons. The video was met with outrage from political adversaries, as it was posted amid a wave of deadly mass shootings across the country. Facebook took the video down, but not before the video made national headlines and achieved its purpose.

“That was classic scandal management,” Leiter said. “If you have scandals that are going to hurt you, especially some of these accusations of child abuse, accusations of sexual assault, accusations of committing fraud against the charity organization, those are not great scandals to have to handle. But an accusation that you’re running an extreme ad that was designed to be taken down by Facebook, and it was very clearly designed to be taken down by social media, that’s a scandal you would love to handle because it fits with the message you're sending that there’s something about elites that are keeping you down.”

Schmitt, the state’s attorney general, has fashioned himself as a classic Trump conservative. His ads show him taking a blowtorch to President Joe Biden’s socialist agenda and most recently his television ads have attacked Hartzler of being a Washington insider and Greitens of being a wife and child abuser.

As attorney general, he has filed numerous lawsuits — often with little success — against China regarding the spread of Covid-19, suing school districts and local governments over Covid-19 mask mandates. Most recently, he made Missouri the first in the country to enforce a previously passed trigger law outlawing abortion after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

“They are foolish lawsuits,” Warren, the St. Louis University professor, said. “It is, in spirit, a violation of the Hatch Act, because he’s using his office to file these frivolous lawsuits that he knows will just rev up his Republican base, particularly in rural Missouri.”

The Hatch Act prohibits civil service employees from engaging in some forms of political activity, especially campaigning.

Not all is lost for Hartzler, who early in the campaign gained a key endorsement from Missouri’s junior U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, who also has a favorable rating among Missouri voters despite an infamous picture of him raising his fist in support of the rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, just before they stormed the Capitol. Hawley has closely aligned himself with Trump throughout his career and was one of the few U.S. Senators to vote against certifying the elections amid Trump’s baseless election fraud claims.

“The Hartzler thing is kind of interesting, because you rarely see somebody just flat out, come out and say ‘I’m not endorsing this person even though they begged me, they’re not the person for to fight RINOs,’” said Daniel Ponder, a political scientist at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, in a phone interview. “And then just other internal dynamics that may or may not have played into this, right, because Hawley and Greitens famously dislike one another. Hawley has been very Trumpian.”

Hawley is one of many politicians on both sides of the aisle who have called on Greitens to drop out of the race due to the allegations of domestic abuse.

On the Democratic side, Trudy Busch Valentine and Lucas Kunce are the clear frontrunners in a field of 11 candidates. Both frontrunners are trying to capture what they hope is a pro-abortion rights voting block, energized and angered by the overturn of Roe.

Busch Valentine, a member of the Busch family beer mogul, has long been a democratic donor and fundraiser but has never run for office. She is running as a former nurse, mother and a protector of women’s reproductive rights.

Kunce is a 13-year Marine veteran and antitrust advocate. He is endorsed by Pro-Choice Missouri, according to his website.

Kunce’s recent television ads have attacked Busch Valentine’s participation in the all-white Veiled Profit social society and ball. In 1977, she was crowned as the society’s Queen of Love and Beauty. In receiving the title, she stood by a man hidden by a white cloth resembling the outfit of a Klu Klux Klan member, while civil rights demonstrators were arrested outside, according to the Riverfront Times.

The Veiled Prophet was founded by former Confederate officers in the 1870s in angry response to a workers’ revolt.

Busch Valentine has apologized for her involvement with the organization.

As a whole, campaigning on the Democratic side has been much quieter compared to their Republican counterparts.

“Keep an eye on the quiet, because I think both sort of candidates that are either polling the highest or have the most economic resources, realize that where they need to spend the money is in the general [election],” Leiter said. “Everyone knows that for the Democrats, the knock-down, drag-out side is the general election, so part of this is just, you know, resource management. … I suspect what we'll see is regardless of who wins, the other will come and stump for the winner.”

Whoever gains the Democratic nomination faces an uphill battle in the general.

While Greitens, with his baggage, is widely considered the most vulnerable of the GOP field, polls indicate that no matter who comes out as the Republican nomination has an advantage in a state that has gone from bellwether to deep red in the past decade.

“The greatest determinant of vote choice, by far, is simply partisanship,” Warren said. “And so, partisanship means a great deal and all that means is Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats vote for Democrats, and very few of them are going to switch over because of issues.”

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