Missouri Senate Primary: Semi-Normal vs. Just Plain Weird

Breaking down the Republican race to replace Sen. Roy Blunt.

ST. LOUIS—If you want to know how it’s going in Missouri’s Republican primary to replace retiring Sen. Roy Blunt, think of it this way: A recent pardon from the state’s governor for one candidate’s guilty plea to a firearms charge is seen here as merely leveling the playing field.

Gov. Mike Parsons’ pardon of fellow Republican Mark McCloskey for waving an AR-15 at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past his home last summer only evens things up on the criminal front with the frontrunner, former Gov. Eric Greitens. Greitens had the foresight to make sure his deal with prosecutors surrounding a an absolutely bonkers sex scandal included no actual admission of guilt. Greitens now falsely claims that he was “fully exonerated.” But McCloskey doesn’t really want even a fake exoneration since his crime is the basis of his candidacy. McCloskey not only pleaded guilty to the brandishing charge but says he would do it again—and promptly went to court to sue for his guns back.

McCloskey is a good fit for the new-look GOP, which is a lot like the old John Edwards’ version of the Democratic Party: constant class warfare, lots of anxiety about the plight of blue-collar whites, and great enthusiasm for litigation. McCloskey is a plaintiff’s lawyer who advertises big payouts for clients and whose web site features an animated panel highlighting big payouts. They pop up like keno numbers “$2,100,000.00 Medical malpractice- unnecessary surgeries… $4,168,000.00 Products liability—defective bathtub spout.” If your bathtub spout is looking sketchy, don’t worry; you can call “24/7 to talk to a lawyer.”

The website does not mention how much McCloskey kept for his work against Big Spout, but we can assume it was a fat lot of cash. The house in front of which he and his wife stood like an Idiocracy version of Grant Wood’s American Gothic is probably worth millions after their exhaustive renovations. Their home is on one of the swishy, historic private parks in St. Louis’ Central West End, the original gated communities. But fat-cat plaintiff’s lawyers in refurbished Italianate palazzi are getting to be just as much a part of the new “populist regatta” Republican Party as they were in the Clinton-era Democratic Party of Edwards’ “two Americas.” Republican attorneys general have gotten hip to the advantages of using their offices to catch cases for tort lawyers who show their appreciation in the form of campaign contributions. Republican-backed legislation on matters like internet content moderation now tend to favor opening huge new vistas for the “24/7” legal types to sue, sue, sue.

McCloskey knows from his work how important promotion is, so he is working a Ron DeSantis primary strategy to try to become the Fox News candidate in the field. That makes Greitens the Newsmax nationalist in the race, a posture that helps him drum up small-dollar donations from the MAGA community to try to offset his weak support from traditional donors. Greitens has already sewn up the support of Trump insiders and kooky cable stalwarts including Rudy Giuliani, Victoria Toensing, Joe DiGenova, Sebastian Gorka, and Bernie Kerik. And don’t forget Rep. Billy Long, who declared for Senate after traveling to call on former President Trump and who went on Tucker Carlson Tonight last week to announce his candidacy.

Unless Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán decides to stage a Budapest cage match to determine who deserves to be the true tribune of the people, that leaves McCloskey, Long, and Greitens substantially fighting over the same pool of votes. And that’s very good news for Republican chances in Missouri. With those three fighting each other, that should leave space for a semi-normal candidate to get through the primary. The situation here is like the Ohio Senate primary, where Republican elders also hope that a safer general-election candidate might slip past noisy nationalists J.D. Vance and Josh Mandel. It worked in this year’s Virginia and New Jersey GOP gubernatorial primaries, so that may be the party’s best model for the 2022 Senate races as well.

But who is the semi-normal candidate in Missouri? The bar is pretty low given how Republican the Show Me State has become and the presumed GOP lean of the midterm electorate. Plus, Missouri Democrats may be even worse basket cases than the Republicans. Seeming determined to become the Ilhan Omar of the Middle Mississippi Valley, Rep. Cori Bush is regularly dashing to the cameras to provide new fodder for Republicans to use in discrediting her party in the eyes of the state’s persuadable voters. And it’s also been up to Democratic mayors in St. Louis and Kansas City to reimpose limited mask mandates in the face of skyrocketing coronavirus infections. Indeed, Democrats’ narrow hopes of flipping the Senate seat rely on getting a little-known generic Democrat through their primary and then drawing a real kook on the GOP side. If Republicans can keep it together, the seat should be a safe one for them. But the semi-normal lane is a little crowded, too.

State Attorney General Eric Schmitt got his gig when Parsons appointed him to replace Josh Hawley after Hawley won the state’s other Senate seat in 2018. Schmitt, who had won a statewide race for treasurer in 2016, won the A.G. job on his own in 2020. While he has some exposure with general election voters for his support of a lawsuit to overturn the 2020 presidential election, he’s still mostly a mainstream political figure. But swimming alongside him is Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a congresswoman for the Kansas City suburbs and other western Missouri counties. She’s got the same liability because of her support for trying to block certification of the election—even after the January 6 riot—but has stopped short of the radicalism of McCloskey & Co. She’s also raising lots of cash and spending it on high-end support.

If Schmitt, Hartzler, or some yet-to-be-declared semi-normal candidate makes it through, the seat should be in the bag for Republicans. But if they get tangled up with each other, it could leave the way open for Greitens or McCloskey and put the state in play for Democrats. Maybe Schmitt and Hartzler should demand pardons from Parsons, too. Just for street cred.