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Can Mark McCloskey Ride Viral Fame Into the Senate?
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Can Mark McCloskey Ride Viral Fame Into the Senate?

The St. Louis lawyer's clash with BLM protesters last summer made him a right-wing folk hero and landed him a felony charge. The logical next step: GOP politics.

With Sen. Roy Blunt set to retire next year, what do Missouri Republicans want from his replacement? 

Is it, A) a dependable if unremarkable politician with legislative experience and a track record of conservative votes—someone like Rep. Vicky Hartzler or Rep. Jason Smith? Is it, B) a state official who used his office to wholeheartedly support Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election—someone like state Attorney General Eric Schmitt? Is it, C) a disgraced but defiant politico who insists his raft of recent scandals were witch hunts by an establishment desperate to stop his anti-corruption agenda—someone like former Gov. Eric Greitens? Or could it be D) a wealthy personal injury lawyer who became a figure of national controversy after he was caught on video last summer, barefoot in chinos and a Brooks Brothers polo, brandishing a rifle at a crowd passing the palatial home he shares with his wife?

If you answered D, you’re recently in luck. Mark McCloskey, the attorney whose clash with Black Lives Matter protesters last June became an instant piece of 2020 lore, threw his hat in the 2022 ring last week, making it official with a lengthy campaign announcement video and a segment on Tucker Carlson’s primetime show on Fox News.

It’s not unfair to McCloskey to say he thinks his viral armed argument is sufficient to make him Senate material: It’s what he claims himself. Here’s how he kicks off that campaign launch video: “When the angry mob came to destroy my house and kill my family, I took a stand against them. Now I’m asking for the privilege to take that stand for all of us. I will never back down.”

This is, to put it kindly, a stretch. The “mob” in question had been passing McCloskey’s home en route to demonstrate at the home of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson several blocks away; the only damage allegedly done by the crowd was to an iron gate at the entrance of the neighborhood. (Even that is disputed; local news station KSDK reported—citing video evidence—that the gate had been intact during the McCloskey altercation.) Although no shots were fired, a grand jury later indicted McCloskey and his wife on charges of felony unlawful use of a weapon; that case is ongoing.

But it’s a story in keeping with the one McCloskey has been telling over the last year: at Trump campaign rallies, the Republican National Convention, and in frequent appearances on Fox News.

In an interview, Billy Grant, a consultant with the McCloskey campaign, argued the candidate’s rhetoric was accurate because there had been no way for him to judge the intentions of an unpredictable crowd: “I think most people would probably assume the worst if you’re sitting outside on your porch having dinner, and all of a sudden there’s hundreds of people breaking down a metal gate and screaming things,” he told The Dispatch. “People can have the best intentions in the world, but if you’re in a group of people and one person starts acting out, things can get out of control pretty quickly.”

The lawyer’s announcement made a splash: McCloskey’s campaign told The Dispatch he pulled in approximately $300,000 in donations after the Carlson appearance. Although he’s a political neophyte, he isn’t a complete newcomer on the Missouri GOP scene: He and his wife rallied with Republican lawmakers during the legislative session earlier this year in support of the Second Amendment Preservation Act, a bill preventing state law enforcement from enforcing any “federal laws, rules, orders or other actions which restrict or prohibit the manufacture, ownership and use of firearms, firearms accessories, or ammunition exclusively in Missouri.” And his campaign is confident that his name ID is already strong and positive among GOP primary voters.

Still, Missouri Republican operatives are divided on whether McCloskey’s national notoriety has enough juice to translate into primary success—or whether, as one GOP strategist put it, he’s positioned at best only to “take a chunk out of Greitens.”

Jim Lembke, a former state senator who now works for the Senate conservative caucus, told The Dispatch he sees McCloskey as “a real factor,” pointing to his deep pockets and his promising early fundraising numbers.

“He’s a pretty engaging guy,” Lembke said. “He’s a trial attorney, so he’s used to speaking, and he seemed very articulate. He impressed me that he had no bones about letting everybody know that he was a conservative Republican.”

Among the unconvinced: John Lamping, another former state senator and a one-time ally of Greitens, who went so far as to argue that playing spoiler for the former governor could be the point of the McCloskey campaign.

“We always have people get put in a race just to take off a point or two or three of somebody’s vote,” Lamping told The Dispatch. “And that’s why he’s there. There’s nothing to McCloskey—everybody that’s in politics knows exactly what he’s there for. The hope would be that, hey, maybe it’s a couple of points.”

In our interview, McCloskey’s consultant Grant called that a “laughable quote.” Primary voters, he argued, don’t think in the same terms of the “lanes” that pundits and strategists tend to focus on.

(It’s unsurprising, by the way, that people who see things from Greitens’ perspective are on high alert for tricks to hurt his chances. As the Missouri legislature was wrapping up its 2021 session earlier this month, one eleventh-hour bill introduced by Senate Republicans raised eyebrows across the state. It would have created a new runoff election for statewide primaries if no single candidate captured a majority of the primary vote—but only until 2024. Since most strategists think Greitens gets stronger as the field gets bigger, the move seemed to be a deliberate attempt to hamstring Greitens. After passing the Senate, the bill didn’t make it through the House before the session ended, but some state operatives think there may be another push for it should the legislature be called for a special session later this year.)

Whether or not McCloskey proves to have real electoral legs, his fledgling candidacy is a good window into where outsider candidates are trying to meet GOP voters right now. In his campaign video, he swaps polo and khakis for jeans and plaid flannel, wandering through dilapidated St. Louis neighborhoods, lugging hay around and driving a tractor at a farm he owns.

“Our nation is under attack. Big tech, big business, the swamp in D.C. are all working together to destroy our God-given freedom, our culture, and our heritage,” he says, before going on to decry “cancel culture, the poison of critical race theory, the lie of systemic racism backed up by the threat of mob violence, attacks on the second amendment, [and] erosion of election integrity.”

“Missouri,” he says, “is not, and must never become, a socialist state.”

It’s the sort of pitch to get you noticed in the modern GOP. Will voters buy it coming from such an unlikely source? Stay tuned.

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.