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Which Trumpism Suits the Show-Me State?
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Which Trumpism Suits the Show-Me State?

The three leading GOP Senate candidates offer three variations on the stolen-election theme.

BRANSON, Missouri—A campaign screening of Dinesh D’Souza’s 2020 stolen-election movie. An own-the-libs comedy set from Sen. Ted Cruz. A state barnstorming tour featuring social-conservative luminaries like the Susan B. Anthony List’s Marjorie Dannenfelser and the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins.

With a week to go before the primary, Missouri’s Republican Senate contenders are pulling out all the stops as they attempt to distance themselves from the pack in the race to replace retiring Sen. Roy Blunt. The victor, in this state that has gone from purple to solid red over the last two decades, will be a near-lock for the Senate following the general election in November.

In many GOP primaries around the country this year, the main storyline has been the involvement of former President Donald Trump, whose chosen candidates have surged to victory in many races but crashed and burned in others. In Missouri, though, Trump has largely held back, offering punditry from the sidelines but declining to make an official endorsement. As a result, Tuesday’s primary will have less to do with Trump’s own actions than with which flavor of Trumpism Republican voters find most appealing.

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More than a dozen Republicans are competing for the open seat, but three candidates have been clustered at the top of the polling: U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, state attorney general Eric Schmitt, and former Gov. Eric Greitens. For most of the race, it’s been Greitens who has paced the field thanks to his high name recognition and disciplined MAGA messaging.

Now, however, the polls seem to suggest Hartzler and Schmitt surging and Greitens falling behind. The most recent reliable third-party poll—a Trafalgar Group survey released Monday—put Schmitt in the lead with 26 percent of the vote, Hartzler at 24 percent, Greitens at 20 percent, and the rest of the candidates at a combined 13 percent, with 15 percent still undecided. The Hartzler campaign’s latest round of internal polling found a similar result, with Schmitt and Hartzler in a statistical dead heat.

Greitens’ fade isn’t surprising, as he is in many respects damaged goods—encumbered with what grizzled political hands call “baggage” and the rest of the world is likelier to call “contemptible moral degeneracy.” Elected governor in 2016, he resigned less than two years later after a scandal provoked by an extramarital affair with his hairdresser, who said he had tied her up in his basement and taken a nude photo of her to blackmail her into staying silent about the tryst. Later, his wife Sheena would divorce him and allege in court filings that he had become physically abusive toward her and their children as his political career went up in smoke. (Greitens denies all this except for the affair.)

As he attempts his comeback, Greitens has immersed himself in the “enemy of my enemy” negative ideology of the MAGA id—waving off all his scandals as hatchet jobs from craven political foes, then pointing to those supposed smears as evidence he’s the candidate Democrats truly dread. Don’t just judge candidates by their friends, his campaign manager Dylan Johnson said at an event last week—“judge ‘em by their enemies. You can tell a lot more about someone by who’s attacking them, ‘cause they only attack the ones that they fear.”

Unlike his opponents, Greitens hasn’t been in office in a few years, which means he hasn’t had the opportunity to make actual policy moves in service of the MAGA causes du jour. He has attempted to compensate by flinging himself headlong into a pair of true-believer issues: promising to vote Minority Leader Mitch McConnell out of Senate GOP leadership and pledging to investigate what really happened in the 2020 election.

Last Thursday night, Greitens proclaimed to an audience of about 100 at Branson’s Nashville Roadhouse Theater that “despite the mainstream media lies, despite the left’s craziness, and despite the corruption and cowardice of the weak RINO establishment who refuse to get to the truth, today more Americans recognize that there was massive fraud in the 2020 election than back in November of 2020.” Greitens spoke for only a few minutes; the bulk of the two-hour program was dedicated to a showing of the Dinesh D’Souza movie 2,000 Mules.

Eric Schmitt, the state attorney general, has also run in part on stolen-election grounds, listing among his professional accomplishments his participation in Texas’ doomed lawsuit that challenged the electoral vote counts in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania after the 2020 election. These days, however, Schmitt takes the “moderate” election-denier path—talking up the importance of “election integrity” on the campaign trail, but not insisting on rehashing the question of whether Trump lost fair and square. He notched endorsements from Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, the latter of whom joined him at a pair of rallies in the St. Louis area last Saturday.

Schmitt spends the bulk of his time talking about his own work as attorney general, while still in the same smashmouth MAGA style: “As your attorney general, my job is really pretty simple,” he said at the Saturday rally. “I get up in the morning, I go to work, I sue Joe Biden, I go home.” This got a big laugh, and then a smaller one a few minutes later after Cruz repeated the same line.

Indeed, Schmitt has sued the Biden administration on a number of issues, including over the onetime proposed vaccine mandate and (more frivolously) on the grounds that Biden was “allegedly working with social media giants such as Meta, Twitter, and YouTube to censor and suppress free speech.” Closer to home, Schmitt has found another foil in St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, whom he spent much of 2021 suing over various COVID restrictions Page had kept in place.

Listening to voters discuss the choice between Greitens and Schmitt can be fascinating. During Trump’s rise, many Republicans made the choice to overlook his own personal failings on the grounds that he was the only person carrying forward the policies they preferred. Now, however, some have apparently cast aside the notion that character ever matters—or at least that they can ever really know the answer to questions like whether a candidate beats his wife. 

“I’m more about policy than personal whatever,” Connie Seidel of Branson told The Dispatch at Greitens’ Thursday event. “I like Greitens; I think he’s getting a bad rap in some places by the Democrats. I think they’re making some accusations; whether they’re true, whether they’re not, how would I know?”

At Schmitt’s event, two local friends, Michelle Boiles and Rebecca Goveia, disagreed with one another about whether Greitens’ scandals had disqualified him from consideration.

“It’s hard to move past that,” Boiles, who said she planned to vote for Schmitt, told The Dispatch. “If you’re not gonna treat your wife good—and I know there’s two sides to every story and the truth is somewhere in the middle, but still, if you can’t have your own house in order, how can you plan on having a whole state in order or a whole country in order?”

Goveia, who said she had attended the event undecided but liked what she heard from Schmitt, disagreed: “That’s a personal thing. I was cheated on. I understand. But it doesn’t mean my ex can’t do his job well. He’s very good at his job.”

“And I agree with that,” Boiles said. “You know, it should be their personal life, him and his wife. However, you chose to have a job that puts you in the public spotlight. You’re held to a higher standard.”

Then, of course, there’s one more candidate: Rep. Vicky Hartzler. She’s not a Never Trumper by any stretch, having voted against both presidential impeachments and against the certification of the 2020 election. But she’s not an obvious vessel for MAGA energy either—in her stump speech, she focuses on her support for law enforcement and the military, small business owners and farmers, and paints herself more as a steady hand and proven fighter than as a swashbuckling disruptor. 

At a Monday coffeeshop event in Liberty, near Kansas City, she talked about her background as a farmer and a teacher, her endorsements from local farmers’ groups, her support for pro-life causes and religious liberty, and her service on the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee. At one point, she even threw in a supposed quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville—a spurious one, as it turns out, but you can’t fault the effort.

Hartzler waves off the notion that her more understated style is unsuited to the current sharp-elbowed Republican mood. “I subscribe to the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, when he said, ‘in matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle stand like a rock,’” Hartzler told The Dispatch. “There’s a workhorse and a show horse; I’m a workhorse.” (Not to pile on, but it’s probably worth noting that the Jefferson quote is a common misattribution too.)

The workhorse mindset perhaps helps explain why Hartzler boasts a pile of endorsements from sitting senators in neighboring states and from Sen. Josh Hawley at home, who appeared with her at a “Faith and Freedom Summit” alongside the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins Monday evening.

That event also highlighted another significant difference: While Greitens and Schmitt rarely discuss faith on the campaign trail, Hartzler wears her Christianity on her sleeve. “We need to come back to the Judeo-Christian values that made this country great,” she said at the Monday evening event. “And people’s hearts need to be changed through the power of Jesus Christ.” 

“The Bible was good enough for this nation to be built upon; it’s good enough to guide the nation back today,” Perkins said. “That’s how Vicky sees things, and that’s what she has spoken of.” 

The idea that Hartzler’s campaign represents a sustainable fusion between Trumpism and old-school social conservatism took a hit earlier this month when Trump himself went out of his way to kneecap her, saying in a statement that Hartzler wasn’t up to the task of fighting “the Radical Left Democrats,” the “Fake News Media,” and the “deceptive & foolish RINOs.” 

Trump’s statement didn’t come as a major surprise—he’s long been sympathetic to another candidate, the fourth-place Rep. Billy Long, who has had a chip on his shoulder against Hartzler ever since Hawley endorsed her instead of him. Further, Hartzler hasn’t made Trump’s pet issue of the supposedly stolen 2020 presidential contest and “election integrity” a centerpiece of her campaign.

Still, don’t go thinking that Trump’s slight has freed Hartzler to be the sort of Republican who’s going to acknowledge the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s win. 

 “Yeah, I’ve seen the 2,000 Mules video too,” she told The Dispatch. “It’s very, very, very concerning. That’s why it’s important that several states are taking steps needed to secure their election laws.”

Does she then believe Biden was legitimately elected? “I don’t think we’ll ever really know, because there were so many discrepancies.” 

As they head to the polls next Tuesday, Missouri Republicans are spoiled for choice when it comes to which elements of Trumpism they’d like to see in their next senator. As far as “election integrity” is concerned, though, there’s really only three options on offer: small, medium, or large. 

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Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.