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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Eric Schmitt won his U.S. Senate race but could face a rocky road with Democratic majority

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt puts his arms around supporters while celebrating winning the state’s U.S. Senate election on Nov. 8 at a watch party in Maryland Heights.

Last Tuesday was a triumph for Eric Schmitt, but now he faces being in the U.S. Senate's Republican minority.

In between the applause and rapturous cheers at a Maryland Heights hotel ballroom, Schmitt said his win was a rebuke of President Joe Biden. It was also, as he alluded to in his speech, his official foray into the world of federal policymaking.

“And I will never forget the message sent tonight by the voters of the great state of Missouri, that we’re not giving up on America,” Schmitt said. “To the contrary. We believe our best days are ahead of us, and it is worth fighting for.”

But after Schmitt is sworn into office in January, his professional life will be much different than walking up to an adoring crowd while Tom Petty music plays in the background. He’ll have to try to make his mark in a divided Congress, where the sweeping change he promised will be tough to achieve with the GOP in the Senate minority.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Republicans will be in the U.S. Senate's minority in January, thanks to Democratic victories across the nation.

January will be the first time Schmitt is in the minority

From the moment Schmitt entered state legislative politics, the Republican Party always called the shots in the Missouri General Assembly.

Schmitt was first elected to the state Senate in 2008, which was a terrible year for Missouri Republicans. Still, the GOP picked up three seats in the Senate, and Schmitt’s ability to influence policy only grew as his party’s margins expanded.

But that won’t be what he’ll be encountering in the U.S. Senate.

After late-breaking Democratic victories in Arizona and Nevada, Republicans will be in the minority for at least two years. But since Schmitt will serve for the next six years, the composition of the Senate could change enough to give Republicans the majority again. Even if a better legislative result for Republicans materializes in 2024, any sweeping changes they want to make would also be dependent on winning the White House.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) speaks to the media on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, at the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis, Mo.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Outgoing U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) was able to do quite a bit in the minority by working across the aisle with some of his Democratic colleagues.

As long as Democrats are in charge, Schmitt will need them to pass bills

That’s not to say that Schmitt won’t have any ability to affect the trajectory of legislation in the Senate.

Schmitt’s soon-to-be predecessor, Sen. Roy Blunt, was still able to get things done when his party was in the minority. For example, he teamed up with Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow to help expand community mental health clinics.

Blunt, though, came into the Senate with more than a decade of experience in the U.S. House and was able to establish relationships across the aisle.

And while Schmitt spent most of his Senate campaign emphasizing his disagreement with Biden’s agenda, he does have some experience in the Missouri Senate working on issues of bipartisan concern. That includes requiring insurance to pay for certain autism therapies and overhauling municipal governance.

“If you look at his time in the state Senate, he was in the middle of big issues,” said James Harris, a GOP political consultant.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Shuttered buildings line downtown Shelbyville in northeast Missouri on Oct. 24. Schmitt will be expected to help bring federal attention to local problems, such as infrastructure needs in rural parts of the state.

Local leaders will look to Schmitt to help with projects

There’s an expectation that Schmitt will need to pick up the mantle of his predecessor on getting federal money for local projects.

Blunt was a key member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which makes big decisions on where funding is directed. He diverged from some in his party by supporting earmarks, the term used for when federal lawmakers like Blunt direct money to specific projects.

Schmitt has often chastised federal spending on the campaign trail and stated that he’s in support of a balanced budget amendment.

State Rep. Louis Riggs of Hannibal notes that northeast Missouri Republicans will be pushing the federal delegation for transportation and broadband expansion.

“Yeah, do we have the votes? No. Do we have the people? Not necessarily. Are we chopped liver? No,” Riggs said. “Do we have needs? Yes. Are we going to be quiet about them? No.”

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
While both Schmitt and U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley have been cool to the idea of Mitch McConnell returning as GOP Senate leader, the Kentucky Republican played a major role in defeating former Gov. Eric Greitens, right, in the August primary. McConnell's political organization spent millions of dollars on disparaging ads that are credited with causing Greiten's popularity to decline and Schmitt's to rise.

GOP leadership struggle could loom large 

During his heated primary campaign, Schmitt told reporters “Mitch McConnell hasn’t endorsed me, and I don’t endorse him for leadership.” And when asked about the topic on the night before his electoral victory, Schmitt told reporters: “I said what I said, and I stand by those comments.”

Whether McConnell stays on as GOP leader is a major topic of discussion since last Tuesday. Some members of the Republican caucus are clearly dissatisfied with the Kentucky Republican’s leadership. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley has said the next GOP Senate leader shouldn’t be McConnell.

It makes sense for both Schmitt and Hawley to be publicly anti-McConnell. The Kentucky senator enraged supporters of former President Donald Trump when he rebuked him after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

But it’s unclear whether the cool rhetoric toward McConnell is just bluster. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton evoked professional wrestler Ric Flair when he said “to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.”

Also, McConnell’s political action committee spent millions of dollars to torpedo former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ Senate campaign, a move that played a role in Schmitt getting to Washington.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
A Donald Trump supporter throws up fingers to signify support for Trump running for office in 2024 at a rally on June 25 at the Adams County Fairgrounds near Quincy.

Trump reemergence could put Schmitt in a tough spot

Jason Rosenbaum joins St. Louis on the Air

Like other GOP contenders to succeed Blunt, Schmitt spent a lot of time emphasizing his alignment with Trump — including tweeting out an endorsement during his general election campaign against Trudy Busch Valentine.

But Trump’s standing among GOP luminaries took a big hit over the past week. Many of the candidates he explicitly supported in primaries, like Blake Masters of Arizona, Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania and Don Bolduc of New Hampshire, lost. Some Republicans are pushing for 2024 alternatives to Trump such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Trump announced his third run for president on Tuesday night, setting up a possible collision with other GOP candidates like DeSantis.

Schmitt will have to decide whether to cast his lot with Trump, who is popular among individual Republican voters in Missouri, or DeSantis, who many Republicans feel has a better chance of actually winning the presidency.

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

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