You could say that the Republican primary election for secretary of state is a choice between a familiar name and a familiar policymaker.
In one corner is state Sen. Will Kraus, an Army veteran from Lee’s Summit, who has prevailed in a number of tough political elections. He’s hoping to parlay his success in passing bills into success in his first bid for statewide office.
In the other side is Jay Ashcroft, the son of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. He is an attorney and engineer who is hoping to bounce back in a big way from a hard-fought, but unsuccessful, state Senate race.
At stake is control of one of Missouri’s most important offices. The secretary of state is responsible for running the state’s elections; registering Missouri businesses; and monitoring securities. Several officeholders (including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and former Missouri Govs. Warren Hearnes and Matt Blunt) have used the position as a springboard to higher office.
The Republican skirmish is getting increasingly testy — and expensive. And it’s far more vigorous than the Democratic primary, where former TV journalist Robin Smith is expected to outflank two perennial candidates on Aug. 2.
When Kraus gets asked about why he decided to run for secretary of state, he points a critical event during a tour of duty in Iraq.
The U.S. Army veteran was flying Chinook helicopters during the conflict, dropping off troops and cargo west of Baghdad International Airport. At some point one day, Kraus’ contingent decided to take a different route. The next day, Kraus said a Chinook helicopter going the usual way was shot down — resulting in the deaths of 16 soldiers.
That episode, Kraus said, showcased the importance of changing direction at the right time. He went onto say that “we need a change of direction in the secretary of state’s office.”
“When you’ve actually put your life on the line to defend this country for the freedoms, when you come back here, you want to make sure you protect those freedoms at almost any cost,” Kraus said.
Kraus first burst onto the Missouri political scene in 2004, defeating incumbent state Rep. Mike Sager. During his time in the House, he was often unafraid to vote differently the rest of his party: He was one of the few Republicans to vote against deep cuts to Medicaid in 2005 and also opposed an effort to repeal campaign contribution limits.
(Kraus said has “evolved” on whether there should be limits on campaign contributions. “I can see the benefits of not having limits,” he said. “What’s going on in the national level with their contribution limits, you have all these PACs. And you don’t know where the money’s coming from.”)
In 2010, Kraus entered a three-way primary to succeed then-state Sen. Matt Bartle in the Missouri Senate. He narrowly defeated then-House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt and then-Rep. Gary Duesenberg in a highly competitive GOP primary, which was tantamount to election.
Kraus eventually joined a bloc of conservative senators who proved adept at filibustering legislation. He said that “got him out of the gate as a conservative pushing conservative agenda.” But he effectively broke away from that group and focused on passing, as opposed to blocking, bills.
Kraus handled two tax cut proposals — one in 2013 that was vetoed and the veto was not overridden and another in 2014 that ultimately became law over Gov. Jay Nixon’s objection. He also sponsored a constitutional amendment (and an implementation statute) that could pave the way for requiring a government-issued photo identification to vote.
He said his legislative accomplishments show that he knows how to get things done when it matters.
“I made the transition to saying ‘You know what? If I’m at the table and able to voice my concerns, I don’t always have to be the guy that stops things from happening,’” Kraus said in 2015. “But I want to be at the table and my voice to be heard. And as long as I feel like I’m part of the process and get those things done, that also helps builds relationships.”
Jay Ashcroft didn’t have much of a choice in being exposed to the Missouri political universe.
His father, John Ashcroft, was one of the most successful Missouri Republicans ever. He’s the only GOPer to ever win two consecutive terms as governor. And he served as U.S. attorney general, U.S. senator, Missouri attorney general and Missouri auditor.
Of his father, Jay Ashcroft says, “When people talk to him today, they say ‘What should we call you? Should we call you general? Should we call you governor?’ And he has the humility to say ‘You know what, I’m not in politics. I’m happy to just be John and be a person instead of a position.’ And I think we’ve lost that with a lot of officials in government and politics now. They’re worried about position. They’re worried about power or their pension. And they don’t realize that serving in office like that, that’s a privilege and a gift that’s bestowed by the people of this state.”
After getting engineering degrees from what is now the Missouri University of Science in Technology, Ashcroft worked in the defense industry. He eventually made his way to St. Louis, got married and earned a law degree from Saint Louis University.
His first foray into politics was in 2014, when ran for a state Senate seat that took in parts of central and western St. Louis County. He ultimately lost to Democrat Jill Schupp in one of the more expensive state legislative races of the 2014 election cycle.
“I just think that it instilled in me the understanding that you always have to do your best,” Ashcroft said. “And things that are of lasting importance are not done easily. They are not accomplished without effort. But they need to be done. And good people need to do them.”
(It’s worth noting that John Ashcroft lost elections for Congress and state auditor early in his career, and eventually went on to win most of his subsequent races.)
When asked why he decided to run for secretary of state, Ashcroft said there are “far too many people that go to Jefferson City to tell everyone else how to live their life.” He wants to use the secretary of state’s office to enhance cyber security – and to protect Missourians’ personal data.
“And when the government tries to run every aspect of your life, it gets in the way of you being able to take advantage of opportunities and live your life in the most fulfilling way for you,” Ashcroft said. “I think we need individuals who understand that as long as you’re not hurting someone else, government ought to be staying out of your way and allowing you to live your life.”
Ashcroft and Kraus don’t have that many differences in terms of how they would run the secretary of state’s office. They’ve both been critical of the incumbent secretary of state; they both support a government-issued photo identification requirement to vote; and they promised to stamp out electoral fraud.
But the two have posed sharp questions about their opponent’s qualifications.
Kraus’ campaign, for instance, posted a biting web video criticizing Ashcroft in a litany of ways. He’s also been especially critical of how Ashcroft promised to get a photo ID initiative petition on the ballot, but didn’t deliver the necessary signatures.
"I think it speaks volumes to see that he lost a state Senate race, and then turns around and runs statewide. Who does that? Who has the ability to do that? Only somebody with a last name like Ashcroft can actually pull something like that off,” Kraus said.
Ashcroft told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that there was no point in submitting signed petitions when it was clear the legislature was going to pass something on that subject. He told St. Louis Public Radio that Kraus hasn’t been “a consistent conservative,” pointing to how he received endorsements from organized labor in 2010.
“I just think for far too long, we’ve had career politicians that are just looking for another office,” Ashcroft said. “And we need people who are committed to fulfilling and the duties and responsibilities of the office and serving the people of this state. And when you look at understanding of the role of government, we need consistent conservatives that don’t want government to run your lives – but want to create an environment of opportunity for everyone to make their own choices about they live their lives.”
Both candidates are financially well stocked for the final stretch of the primary campaign.
As of late March, Kraus had about $723,000 cash on hand – and received at least $56,625 in donations larger than $5,000. Ashcroft had about $531,101 on hand at the end of March, and received about $145,000 in donation larger than $5,000.
Raised in: Excelsior Springs
Job: military, youth coach
Elections: state House, 2004; state Senate, 2010
Quote: "When you’ve actually put your life on the line to defend this country for the freedoms, when you come back here, you want to make sure you protect those freedoms at almost any cost."
More information: http://www.willkraus.com/
Raised in: Jefferson City
Elections: No previous elected office
Quote: "I think we need individuals who understand that as long as you’re not hurting someone else, government ought to be staying out of your way and allowing you to live your life."
More information: http://ashcroftformissouri.com/