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Missouri GOP Senate hopefuls trade jabs as candidate filing opens

The first day of candidate filing is like the first day of spring training, with everyone excited for the future and hopeful that this is the year of the amazing upset that makes a champion out of last year’s also-ran.

It is also the day for sharpening knives in hotly contested primaries, and the Republicans vying for the open U.S. Senate seat wasted no time in slicing each other up Tuesday as they flocked to Jefferson City to secure their spot on the ballot.

“It is not conservative to tie a woman up in your basement and assault her,” U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler said of Eric Greitens, who resigned as governor in 2018 while under indictment.

Greitens is the only one of her opponents in the GOP Senate primary she would not support if she is not the nominee, Hartzler said.

Hartzler — who won the endorsement of Sen. Josh Hawley last week — would do better outside the primary as the “centrist Republican” former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth has said he is seeking to run as an independent, U.S. Rep. Billy Long told reporters Tuesday.

“They would make a great team,” Long said. “Tell him to call Vicky.”

On the Democratic side, where only one statewide nominee has won election since 2012, optimism is running high, in part because Greitens is running ahead of the GOP pack in polls.

“We have raised more than any other candidates in this race,” said Lucas Kunce, a former Marine who has taken in $2.5 million in contributions. “It is with the message of fundamentally changing who has power in this country.”

 Lucas Kunce, a Democratic candidate running in the Missouri Senate primary, plays rock-paper-scissors with his two sons, Grady and Sully, as they wait in line to file for the primary on Feb. 22, 2022, in Jefferson City (photo by Madeline Carter).

And Carla Coffee Wright, who received 6.2% of the vote in the 2018 Democratic Senate primary as a challenger to Claire McCaskill, said she believes this is her year.

“I am about people over party,” Wright said. “I have been out here for the people for years and I am not going anywhere.”

For the next five weeks, anyone seeking that Senate seat being vacated by Roy Blunt, or state auditor, a seat in Congress, a spot in the General Assembly or circuit judge can pay their filing fee at the Secretary of State’s office and get on the August ballot.

Filing opened at 8 a.m. Tuesday, and by the end of the day, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office had processed 336 candidates – 23 for the U.S. Senate, three for auditor, 39 for Congress, 29 for state Senate, 229 for the Missouri House and 13 for judgeships.

“From every demographic group, every socio-economic level, every part of the state, there are people signing the dotted line to make Missouri better,” Ashcroft said. “I think it is great. It is great to see so many people and half of them are going to lose.”

The state Senate and U.S House candidates are filing without knowing what the boundaries of their districts will be. A congressional map is stalled in the state Senate because of a GOP factional fighting.

The current state delegation includes six Republicans and two Democrats. The Senate’s conservative caucus is trying to force changes that would give Republicans a good shot at winning a seventh seat.

State Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, filed for the 4th District seat Hartzler is vacating to run for Senate. Her home county, Boone, has been in the 4th District since 2011. Walsh, however, voted for a map to move a seventh seat to the GOP that shifted her residence to the 5th District and split Boone County so portions were in three districts.

If that map becomes law, Walsh said, she will move.

“As members of Congress, I think it is incredibly important that you do live in the district you represent,” Walsh said.

Noting that her legislative district stretches into four counties, she expects at least part of it to be in the 4th District when the map is completed.

“I don’t envision any of those scenarios eliminating all of my current constituents so should something like that happen, I would be willing to move to where my current constituents are,” Walsh said.

From the 7th District in southwest Missouri, where Long is leaving his seat for the Senate race, Republican preacher Alex Bryant of Nixa said he wasn’t worried about the final boundaries. 

He’s never run for office before and is likely to face two sitting state Senators, Mike Moon and Eric Burlison, and a former senator, Jay Wasson, in the August primary. He said his message of racial harmony and common sense would bring momentum to his campaign.

“I am a rookie, I am a pastor, and I just decided, you know what, we need some common people to stand up and go for what the people believe and what they want to say,” Bryant said. 

The major announced Republicans vying for the Senate seat all made it to the first day of filing. Since the 1980s, candidates who file on the first day draw numbers that determine ballot order and a top spot on the ballot can make a difference in a close race.

Along with Long and Hartzler, Greitens filed, as did Attorney General Eric Schmitt, St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey and state Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz.

The biggest unknown in the race is whether former President Donald Trump will make an endorsement in the primary. Hartzler said she spoke with Trump about 9:30 p.m. Monday, and Long said Trump left a message on his phone at 2 a.m.

 Vicky Hartzler speaks during a press conference after filing to run in the Missouri Senate primary on Feb. 22, 2022 in Jefferson City (photo by Madeline Carter).

Greitens said he’s aligned most closely with Trump’s agenda and has enlisted the support of many people in Trump’s orbit, including Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, as national campaign chair, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sebastian Gorka.

“They recognize I am the America First candidate in this race and they recognize we need fighters who are willing to do what it takes to take our country back,” Greitens said.

Greitens burst into Missouri politics in the 2016 governor’s race, beating several better known opponents in the primary and defeating Democratic candidate Chris Koster in the general election. 

His political life unraveled when a woman with whom he had a brief affair in 2015 testified under oath that Greitens taped her hands to pull-up rings in his basement, blindfolded her, spit water into her mouth, ripped open her shirt, pulled down her pants and took a photo of her to use as blackmail to keep her from talking about their relationship.

That led to his indictment and the impeachment investigation.

Asked by reporters if he was “a different person” than he was at that time, Greitens said he was because the episode opened his eyes to how his enemies would attack him.

“I am incredibly blessed because I have seen the true nature of the enemy we are facing,” he said.

Schmitt said he was optimistic about his chances in August because of the headlines he has been able to generate suing President Joe Biden’s administration over border policies and Biden and local governments over COVID policies 

“The difference between me and the field, quite frankly, is that a lot of people can talk about things, a lot of people will give speeches about things, I am actually doing things,” Schmitt said.

He was much more guarded than Hartzler when asked about the issues that pushed Greitens out of office.

“He is going to have to make that case to Missourians,” Schmitt said. “There were a lot of questions left unanswered when he left.”

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