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Missouri Senate race a choice between Republican dominance or a Democratic comeback

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Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Democrat Trudy Busch Valentine is vying with Republican Eric Schmitt for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat.

From the moment Eric Schmitt stepped onto a stage this summer in a Maryland Heights hotel ballroom, Missouri’s U.S. Senate race fundamentally changed.

Schmitt, Missouri’s attorney general, had just vanquished five other major candidates who sought the nomination to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt. National Republicans had worried that former Gov. Eric Greitens would prevail and risk squandering the GOP's chances at holding the seat with a scandal-plagued campaign. But an onslaught of third-party advertisements backing Schmitt overwhelmed his opponents, and the attorney general quickly pivoted to a campaign that lambasted the national Democratic Party.

“I'm going to Washington to fight for working families, defeat socialism and lead the fight to save America,” Schmitt said to a cheering crowd.

Schmitt is clearly banking that his message will resonate with a state that’s favored GOP candidates over the past few election cycles. But his Democratic opponent, Trudy Busch Valentine, is hoping that voters see Schmitt and Missouri Republicans as too extreme on issues such as abortion rights and gun control.

Unlike past election cycles, national Democratic groups aren’t helping Busch Valentine out — which means she’s having to spend millions of her own money to bankroll her campaign. She’s also trying to energize a complicated coalition for Missouri Democrats desperate for statewide success after years of failure at the ballot box.

“We have to crack down on crime. We have to get people out of poverty by being able to give them a good education,” said Busch Valentine at an October campaign event in Webster Groves.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt tells voters why he should be Missouri’s next U.S. senator on Aug. 1 during a campaign stop the day before the state’s primary election in Washington, Mo.

‘I’m from Bridgeton’

Schmitt charted a meticulous pathway to get to that Maryland Heights stage.

The De Smet High School graduate grew up in north St. Louis County and has touted those roots throughout his political career. He argued in 2011 that a “China hub” at St. Louis Lambert International Airport would be a boon for the St. Louis region and for the part of St. Louis County where he grew up.

He also emphasized his north St. Louis County upbringing in his victory speech when he said: “I don’t come from billions. I come from Bridgeton.”

After graduating from Truman State University and St. Louis University School of Law, Schmitt eventually got his start in politics through election to the Glendale Board of Aldermen. Schmitt won a bid in 2008 to the Missouri Senate, where he served for eight years before successfully running for state treasurer in 2016. He was appointed attorney general by Gov. Mike Parson after then-Attorney General Josh Hawley was elected to the U.S. Senate. Schmitt won a full four-year term to the post in 2020.

Schmitt, whose campaign did not make him available for an interview for this story, has often cited his son Stephen as a catalyst for getting involved in electoral politics. Stephen Schmitt is nonverbal, on the autism spectrum and has epilepsy.

“That’s our life experience,” Schmitt said during a 2013 edition of Politically Speaking. “I understand very well what families go through in trying to make sure that their child has the best chance to succeed and reach their full potential.”

While a member of the Senate, Schmitt worked closely on requiring insurance companies to pay for things like applied behavior analysis — which was for a time a popular therapy for people on the autism spectrum. He also played a role in legislation cutting taxes and was the sponsor of legislation that restricted the percentage of fines and fees municipalities could have in their budgets.

GOP political consultant James Harris predicts that if Schmitt makes it to the Senate, his tenure will be similar to his time in the General Assembly’s upper chamber.

Harris said Schmitt “was always in the middle of big issues working on stuff,” adding that “he was not what I would say the backbencher.”

Former state Sen. John Lamping, who served with Schmitt in the Missouri Senate in the early 2010s, called Schmitt someone who “works very hard at his craft.”

“He embraces fundraising very early on,” Lamping said earlier this year.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Schmitt engaged in an active primary campaign that included well-attended events with GOP luminaries like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. He's done fewer public events during the general election, mostly confining his campaign to social media activity and television advertisements.

As attorney general, Schmitt gained national attention for provocative lawsuits including one filed against China in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also gone after a number of aspects of President Joe Biden’s agenda, including a vaccine mandate for workers that was eventually scuttled.

Much of Schmitt’s messaging centers around criticism of Biden’s policies and arguing that he would oppose most of them if he’s elected to the Senate.

“I have fought in court to protect our liberties from ridiculous mask mandates,” Schmitt said.

Some observers, including former Democratic state Sen. Scott Sifton, contend that Schmitt became more outwardly conservative in order to appeal to a statewide electorate — especially one that is heavily influenced by former President Donald Trump.

Sifton, who served in Truman State University student government with Schmitt, pointed to how Schmitt signed onto an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2020 that sought to overturn Biden’s electoral victory as part of that trend.

“When somebody goes from bragging about how they're a kinder, gentler, milquetoast moderate, and then a month later is going as hard to the right as they possibly can, because that's where the base is gone — it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence,” said Sifton.

Trudy Busch Valentine, Democratic hopeful for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat, on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, at Milo's Bocce Garden in St. Louis’ The Hill neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Trudy Busch Valentine, Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, on Sept. 1 at Milo's Bocce Garden in St. Louis’ The Hill neighborhood.

'A big heart'

Unlike Schmitt, who entered the Senate scramble in 2021, Busch Valentine got into the Democratic contest on the last day of filing — prompting Sifton to exit.

Busch Valentine is an heir to the Busch family, which owned Anheuser-Busch until 2008. Her father, Gussie Busch, was a beloved figure in St. Louis and ran the brewery from 1946 to 1975. But while alluding to her family’s success in television ads and social media, Busch Valentine has often pointed to difficult moments in her life as a way to relate to Missourians.

During a Webster Groves roundtable with municipal officials, Busch Valentine teared up while describing how her son Matt died of a drug overdose. She said that experience prompted her to make stemming opioid addiction a major element of her campaign.

“So many people are able to come up and share the same story with me,” Busch Valentine said. “Matt has been my partner in doing this and in my desire, really, to be in this race and end the opioid epidemic and start talking about mental health issues and taking the stigma and shame away from both.”

Sifton said Busch Valentine has a “big heart.”

“That's one thing that people don't always realize about those who run for office or serve in office,” Sifton said. “Most people really do have a personal story or personal reason or personal motivation for wanting to do what they do in public life.”

Busch Valentine won the Democratic primary after investing millions of her own money in television ads that emphasized her experience as a nurse and highlighting her support of abortion rights.

Since entering the general election season, Busch Valentine has gone after Schmitt for signing paperwork that banned most abortions in the state.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Busch Valentine's campaign has zeroed in Schmitt's votes in 2013 to repeal a ban on foreign ownership of farmland. Democrats need to hold down Schmitt's margins in rural Missouri to have any chance of winning the U.S. Senate race on Nov. 8.

She’s also been especially critical of Schmitt for voting in favor of a bill that repealed a prohibition on the foreign ownership of farmland. That was done in 2013 before a Hong Kong-based company purchased Smithfield, a pork producing company with a large footprint in Missouri.

“Communist countries like China, for them to own farmland in Missouri or anywhere else in the United States is a threat to our security, and it’s a threat to our food supply,” Busch Valentine said.

Since the early 2010s, Missouri Democrats have lost support in rural communities. To capture a statewide win, Busch Valentine will need to make up that ground and hold down Schmitt's margins in lesser-populated counties. And while some question whether the foreign ownership of farmland issue will move the needle on this goal, Democrats like Clark County resident Charles West said he appreciates that Busch Valentine is trying.

“It doesn't matter if you're Republican, Democrat, you cannot speak to one party,” said West, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in Missouri’s 6th Congressional District. “You gotta talk to everybody.”

But holding down margins won’t be enough for Busch Valentine, who will also need to turn out large numbers of Democratic voters in urban areas. She’s sought to appeal to this base with her support of gun control measures, such as raising the age for when someone can buy a handgun.

“The most important thing that she has to do is ignite her base and get them excited,” said state Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Busch Valentine isn't getting financial support from national Democratic groups, which means she's had to spend her own money in an attempt to resurrect a complicated coalition that's required for her party to win statewide elections.

Democratic hurdles

National Democratic groups aren’t spending money on advertisements attacking Schmitt or pouring in money to help organize get-out-the-vote efforts around the state. That's unlike 2016 and 2018, when those organizations believed Missouri's Senate races to be more competitive and helped Sen. Claire McCaskill and Jason Kander in their unsuccessful runs.

“It’s a sleeper by comparison to other U.S. Senate races,” said former GOP Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.

Harris also said this Senate race is generally more restrained than past contests in Missouri. He said it’s possible that Schmitt could win by a sizable margin, especially if he keeps the race tight in St. Louis County and gets around 80% in some rural parts of the state.

“Schmitt’s about as good of a candidate as you’re going to get on the Republican side,” said state Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Callaway County.

Schmitt may also get a boost if the national environment is favorable to the GOP. An Emerson College poll showed that Biden’s approval rating is poor in Missouri — a signal that Schmitt’s advocacy against the president could have appeal.

Kinder also thinks that voters are more concerned with matters like inflation and gas prices, and that Busch Valentine’s advocacy against the state’s new abortion law may not resonate.

“In election campaigns, fundamentals have a way of reasserting themselves in a ruthless, remorseless manner,” Kinder said. “The lived experience of housewives and working people going to the supermarket every week, filling up their gas tank every week is just a crusher. And that's what the Democrats are up against.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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