Missouri Republicans are on top of the world — will contentious primaries knock them down?
Byron Donalds recently got a crash course in Republican disunity.
The Republican congressman from Florida was, for a time, at the center of a contentious multiday process to elect a speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Some of his colleagues nominated him to be an alternative to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who became speaker after more than a dozen tries.
During last Saturday’s banquet at the Missouri Republican Party’s Lincoln Days, Donalds said that a highly publicized intraparty battle made the GOP caucus stronger. It led to different rules that Donalds said will empower individual lawmakers and make members more motivated to make McCarthy’s speakership successful.
“We can fight it out in primaries,” Donalds said. “We can have hard conversations and hard discussions. But when it’s time to battle the Democrats, we have to be one party.”
While Donalds was clearly talking about national politics during his speech in Springfield, his words have resonance for what Missouri Republicans are about to go through over the next year.
After unprecedented success at the ballot box over the past six years, the Missouri GOP is bracing for competitive, and potentially adversarial, primaries for a host of important offices. And while party leaders at Lincoln Days aren’t overly concerned about losing statewide elections to Democrats, they are monitoring how fallout from primaries, as well as other external factors, could impact their ability to remain in power.
An open field
In part of a cavernous Springfield hotel that people typically use for eating breakfast, Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller finished up a speech announcing his bid for secretary of state.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft isn’t running for another term (and likely will run for governor), which provided an opportunity for Schoeller to try to capture an office in 2024 he nearly won in 2012. He likely won’t be the only Republican candidate for secretary of state next year, and contested primaries are expected as well for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Talking with reporters after his speech, Schoeller said he wasn’t overly concerned about a primary’s impact on his party’s general election chances.
“What we have to do is make sure that we keep our conduct clean and that we keep it above board,” Schoeller said. “And we run and convince voters that we’re the best person for that office.”
Many at Lincoln Days said they were confident Republicans could maintain their dominance in statewide politics in 2024. For the first time in generations, Republicans hold every statewide office and both U.S. Senate seats. They’re crushing Democratic candidates in rural counties and in fast-growing suburbs. And former Congressman Billy Long said Missouri Democrats don’t have the candidates to turn the tide.
“It’s not that they don’t have a bench,” Long said. “They don’t have a starting lineup.”
In some respects, the collapse of Democrats in Missouri made GOP primaries for statewide offices inevitable. State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles, will likely vie with Ashcroft and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe for the governorship.
“We’re increasingly becoming a primary state where really the future direction of the state is being decided in August and not necessarily November,” Eigel said. “I think that’s a testament to how the national Democratic brand has hurt the Democratic state party and how the values that Republicans are really reflective of what a strong majority of Missouri want to see enacted into policy.”
Kehoe said many candidates running in primaries “have a lot of similarities in their conservative values and what their beliefs are.”
“I think it's all going to come down to what's their background? What's their journey been through the state of Missouri? What are their experiences? What is their business experience?” Kehoe said. “And if everybody can kind of get in their silos and tell what each other's story is, then hopefully Missourians will decide based on that.”
Not everyone at Lincoln Days is convinced that the good times for Republicans will last forever.
For one thing, this will be the first election cycle since former U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt retired. And there’s concern that there isn’t another political figure who can re-create his highly successful political organization. Others are worried about the impact of the presidential contest on statewide races.
In 1992 and 2008, Republicans faltered after enduring brutal gubernatorial primaries. The strength of the Democratic presidential candidates in Missouri during those two cycles played a major role in sinking candidates up and down the ballot.
And while few expect Democrats will take Missouri’s Electoral College votes next year, U.S. Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, said the rest of the GOP ticket will suffer if the GOP presidential candidate is underwhelming.
“If it becomes like a Mitt Romney or a [John] McCain? Absolutely,” said Burlison, referring to the GOP presidential nominees in 2012 and 2008. “I think people are not inspired by those kinds of candidates.”
Former President Donald Trump is running again for the presidency. And he made a surprise cameo (on a cellphone call) at Lincoln Days. But some attendees doubt he can win a general election nationwide. And it’s unknown whether some other candidate, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, can rev up GOP turnout in Missouri like Trump did in 2016 and 2020.
Still, Ashcroft doesn’t think the presidential race will play as big a role as people think. He noted that he and other GOP statewide aspirants outran Trump in 2020.
“Regardless of who the Republican nominee is, we will see Republicans that are more energized than they were in either ‘16 or ‘20,” Ashcroft said, “just because of the state of our country. Just because of what's happened the last couple of years, I think there is even more of a sense of urgency, and that we have to have a change. More so even than we had with President Trump.”
Abortion rights cast a large shadow
There’s another factor that could influence Missouri statewide races in 2024: abortion rights.
Many attendees at Lincoln Days are fully expecting that a ballot item to repeal the state’s abortion ban will make it to the ballot. And unless Missourians approve a ballot measure making constitutional amendments harder to pass in August 2024, a November 2024 measure could drive up Democratic turnout to erase a major GOP policy priority.
“If we have an abortion initiative petition — and it passes and undoes 20 years of Republican legislature on the pro-life movement — that will go down as the single greatest failure of everybody who has served in the legislature in the last 10 years,” said Chris Grahn-Howard, a St. Louis County native who has been involved in Missouri Republican politics for many years.
Grahn-Howard said proponents of the abortion ban made it vulnerable to an initiative petition because they didn’t include exceptions for people who become pregnant due to rape or incest. “That's a hard sell to the majority of Missourians, and an even harder sell to the majority of Americans,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, who will be up for reelection next year, spent part of his speeches at Lincoln Days celebrating the fall of Roe v. Wade.
He said if a measure repealing the abortion ban goes before Missouri voters, it aligns with a new reality in which states get to determine whether abortion is legal within their borders.
“I think that the decision overturning Roe is absolutely right, returning that decision to the people,” Hawley said. “I'm glad that people in Missouri get to set our own laws. I've always said my own view is that I'm 100% pro life. I think that there shouldn't be abortion except for cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother. ... If we get the chance to vote on it? Then, great. But let's see what happens.”
The sunny side of primaries
For his part, Hawley doesn’t think that competitive primaries are necessarily a bad thing for Missouri Republicans.
Before being elected to the Senate in 2018, Hawley prevailed in the attorney general race against then-Sen. Kurt Schaefer in one of the nastiest statewide primaries in recent Missouri history. He ultimately went on to win the general election by a large margin, as did other GOP statewide contenders who made it through party contests.
“I think keeping the disagreement on the issues is fine. I think it’s good, it allows people to choose between different visions,” Hawley said. “But I hope we can keep it focused on issues and what we can present to the people of the state.”
Another Republican who prevailed after a contentious primary was U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt. He maneuvered past five other major candidates last year before cruising to victory in the November general election.
“I’ve run statewide three times in the last six years,” Schmitt said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. And if candidates embrace that, I think Missourians will have some great options to choose from.”