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.”