From left to right, Democrats Trudy Busch Valentine and Lucas Kunce, followed by Republicans Eric Schmitt, Vicky Hartzler and Eric Greitens.
The Missouri U.S. Senate race will move one step closer to being decided after voters pick winning candidates for each party on Tuesday. From left to right, Democrats Trudy Busch Valentine and Lucas Kunce, followed by Republicans Eric Schmitt, Vicky Hartzler and Eric Greitens. (The Beacon)

After campaigns that caused Missourians to revisit a dark chapter in their governor’s office and saw political newcomers take center stage, voters in the U.S. Senate primary for Missouri on Tuesday will finally decide on which Republican and Democratic candidates will run for U.S. Senate. 

After GOP Sen. Roy Blunt announced he would not seek another term, Republicans across the state jumped into Senate primary, ranging from Missourians with no political experience to those who have held public offices for years. On the Democratic side, candidates largely untested in politics have become front-runners. 

Both races have been marked by attacks and negative campaigning.

The races are far from set in stone. Ex-Gov. Eric Greitens, who stepped down from office in 2018 amid multiple scandals, led the Republican field for most of the primary season. In the weeks leading up to election day, current state Attorney General Eric Schmitt has sailed to the top of public polling, bolstered by massive spending and relentless attacks against Greitens from a political group supporting Schmitt. 

The race is so far without an endorsement from former President Donald Trump. He  issued an anti-endorsement of current 4th District U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler a few weeks ago, but has yet to crown the candidate of his choice.

On the Democratic side, self-described populist Democrat Lucas Kunce developed a late-stage public disagreement with his leading opponent, Trudy Busch Valentine. 

Past records take center stage in Democratic primary

The latest polling, from Emerson College, shows the two Democratic frontrunners, Busch Valentine and Kunce, almost neck and neck, with Busch Valentine polling at 39% and Kunce at 35%. 

Kunce is a 13-year Marine veteran. He’s frequently pushed back against the Democratic establishment in Washington, something Columbia College political science professor Terry Smith said is part of an effort to appeal to rural voters who may not typically consider voting for a Democrat. 

“I get that Kunce is trying to make himself appealing to rural Missouri voters. Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia, they’re going to vote for the Democrats. And that’ll get him to 45%,” Smith said of the November election. 

“But what he’s got to get is 50% plus one, and he’s got to do something that is going to get some of  these rural voters, who are by default going to vote for the Republican, to vote for him,” Smith told The Beacon.

Busch Valentine is a nurse and a member of the Anheuser-Busch family. She has self-funded 88% of her bid with just over $3 million of the $3.4 million she has raised so far, according to Open Secrets. 

She entered the race in April, relatively late into the Missouri Senate primary. Her slim record quickly came under attack. And opponents unearthed her participation in 1981 in the Veiled Prophet Ball, which was organized by a male-only club formed in the 1870s by wealthy white residents of St. Louis. They did not allow Black or Jewish members until 1979, two years after Busch Valentine was named the “queen of love and beauty” at the ball. 

Kunce has featured her participation as a cornerstone of his television advertising throughout the Senate primary. Busch Valentine issued a statement apologizing for her participation. 

“I believe in the importance of working together and healing divisions and that starts with acknowledging my own past shortcomings,” Busch Valentine wrote in a statement to The Intercept, which first reported the story. “I failed to fully grasp the situation. I should have known better, and I deeply regret and I apologize that my actions hurt others. My life and work are way beyond that, and as a candidate for Missouri’s next US Senator, I pledge to work tirelessly to be a force for progress in healing the racial divisions of our country.” 

The Kunce campaign has also zeroed in on some of Busch Valentine’s answers throughout the primary when it comes to issues regarding  LGBTQ+ people. 

At one point, when asked to clarify her position on gender-affirming treatments for adolescents, Busch Valentine responded, “I only would say, wait until 18, when a person is an adult, to do everything that wouldn’t allow going back to maybe being the sex that you were, but I totally, totally support transgenders without a doubt.”

The Busch Valentine campaign has also participated in negative advertising. The campaign went on the air with statements Kunce says were a part of his first campaign for the Missouri House in 2006, specifically that he was a “conservative Democrat,” opposed to abortion and gay marriage.

Kunce says he now supports a woman’s right to abortion, and has an endorsement from the state’s largest abortion-rights group. 

His campaign sent a cease and desist letter over the Busch Valentine ad, which it described as “knowingly false, misleading and defamatory.” 

“As a queer man in politics, it’s always upsetting to see Democrats who don’t even try to understand our community,” said Connor Lounsbury, Kunce’s deputy campaign manager, in a statement. “Trudy’s answers on gender-affirming care for trans youth aren’t just uneducated, they’re dangerous.”

Some Democrats in the state legislature are pushing back against what they say is divisive behavior by the Kunce campaign. 

“As the only openly LGBTQ member of our state Senate (who poured every ounce of heart, soul, energy and mind into protecting transgender youth this past legislative session) it’s always upsetting to see fellow Democrats attack our allies for political gain,” Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, tweeted

“There are people in power today who want to hurt us. There is a field of candidates on the other side who will never support us (one who has built a career on being the most hateful homophobic/transphobic person in any room). We must not take our eye off the ball,” he added. 

GOP primary contest in Trumpism

The Republican Senate primary, like many across the nation, has been a race toward who can embrace the former president the most ardently. A Trump endorsement in the race could seal the deal for any of the candidates at this stage, according to Smith. 

“He may not endorse,” Smith said of the Republican primary for Senate in Missouri. “If he does, especially if it’s like the weekend before the election, it’s game over, and whoever gets that endorsement will win and probably win handily.” 

Ex-Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned in 2018 amid sexual assault and blackmail scandals,  diligently sought backing from the former president and quickly fell in line with some campaign goals of far-right Republicans. He vowed that he would not support Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as the leader of the Senate GOP if he were elected and insisted without evidence that the 2020 election was rife with fraud. 

Greitens remained a front-runner even  after his ex-wife alleged as part of a legal child custody dispute that Greitens had struck both her and their children and had displayed “unstable and coercive behavior.” 

Since then, outside spending from a group called Show Me Values PAC, which supports Schmitt, has bombarded mailboxes, social media and the airwaves using the domestic allegations in an effort to pull the former governor from the top of the polls. 

“Scandals, felony charges, physical abuse allegations. That’s not conservative, but it is the real Eric Greitens,” one of the ads narrates

Schmitt has moved to the top of public polling in the Missouri Senate primary after advertising against Greitens grew more aggressive. Records from AdImpact, an ad tracking firm, show that the pro-Schmitt PAC has spent $6.2 million on the airwaves so far. 

The Emerson poll found Schmitt leading the GOP field with 33% of respondents saying they plan to vote for him. Hartzler followed with 21%, while Greitens had dropped from leading the pack with 26% in June to trailing in third place with only 16% in the stretch. 

Fifty percent of Republicans view Greitens as very unfavorable, the poll shows. 

Schmitt has used his office as state attorney general to pursue political lawsuits while campaigning for the Senate. “As your attorney general, I put a stop to Biden’s open border policies, I sued to get rid of Fauci’s COVID mandates. And I stood with President Trump to stop election fraud. In the Senate, I’ll turn the heat up on the Biden Democrats,” Schmitt says in an ad.

Along with suing China as the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, Schmitt has also pursued lawsuits against Missouri school districts and cities for requiring mask wearing. Smith said Schmitt’s activism office could act as a double-edged sword for voters.

“He’s been a very active attorney general, but not everything that he has done has been well received. For example, the lawsuit against China,” Smith said. “There were a lot of people saying, ‘Why are you wasting my taxpayer money on something stupid like that? There might be some people who might support Schmitt, but remember stuff like that, and they say, ‘I just don’t think so.’” 

Hartzler has consistently polled in the middle range of the GOP front-runners, but has an endorsement from U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri.  In an effort to prove her conservative credentials, she has zeroed in on the controversy around transgender athletes participating in women’s sports. In a recent television interview, Hartzler touted that she got banned from Twitter for “defending girl’s sports.” 

“I actually have the war wounds to show for it in that I’ve been suspended from Twitter, because as a former coach, I’ve spoken up for girls sports,” Hartzler said. “And they have said that that violates their hateful conduct just because I say women’s sports should be for women, not men pretending to be women.” 

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MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...