Bullish Dems split on best choice for Missouri Senate upset

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Democrats are feeling bullish about their chances for an upset in Missouri’s U.S. Senate race if scandal-tarred former Gov. Eric Greitens becomes the Republican nominee. But they’re divided on which of their two top candidates is the best bet for a victory in November.

Lucas Kunce brings a Marine swagger and a grassroots populism that appeals to some, particularly in outstate Missouri. He’s raised more money than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican, each of the last four quarters. Trudy Busch Valentine, a retired health care worker and an heir to the Anheuser-Busch fortune, entered the race late, pledging to take compassion and decency to Washington.

With the Aug. 2 primary just days away, Greitens remains among the top contenders on the Republican side, along with Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler. Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, worry that Greitens, who was driven from office just a year and a half into his tenure amid swirling investigations, could cost them a safe seat in a reliably red state at a time when they are trying to take back control of the Senate.

On the Democratic side, both the state party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have declined to endorse a candidate. Meanwhile, local Democratic Party leaders who support Kunce or Valentine say electability is a major factor – but they’re split on who is the stronger candidate.

In suburban St. Louis, the Jefferson County Democratic Central Committee endorsed Valentine, believing the soft-spoken retired nurse offers the best chance of winning in November.

Committee Chair Bob Butler is equal parts intrigued and worried about the prospect of Valentine facing Greitens.

“He would be the easiest to run against, yet at the same time he’s dangerous enough that, if he wins, he’s your U.S. senator, and that’s really scary,” Butler said.

Andy Leighton, chair of the Cape Girardeau County Democratic Committee and a Missouri House candidate, supports Kunce. Kunce made his pitch to Leighton and his committee well over a year ago and has often followed up. The Valentine campaign, Leighton said, has never reached out to him.

“He’s been out and about. No other candidate that I’m aware of has visited so many places. He’s put in the time and created an organization,” Leighton said.

Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt announced in March 2021 that he would not seek a third term. Twenty-one Republicans and 11 Democrats are competing in next week’s primaries. Beyond Kunce and Valentine, only St. Louis County business owner Spencer Toder has topped six figures in donations.

Adding a wildcard to the November race is the presence of John Wood, a Republican running as an independent with millions of dollars in support from a political action committee headed by former Republican Sen. John Danforth. His presence could split the GOP vote in the general election.

Greitens has generated far and away the most attention in the race. The 48-year-old former Navy SEAL officer was a fast-rising Republican star after winning the 2016 gubernatorial race, but his political fortunes soon nosedived.

In early 2018, he admitted to a 2015 extramarital affair with his hairdresser and was indicted on an invasion-of-primary charge accusing him of taking a compromising photo of her to use as blackmail.

Soon after, a Missouri House committee began investigating his campaign finances, and Greitens was charged with a second felony related to that investigation. Both charges were eventually dropped. Under the risk of the charges being refiled and facing possible impeachment, Greitens resigned in June 2018.

Since then, he and his wife have divorced. In a March affidavit in a child custody dispute, Sheena Greitens accused him of abusing her and one of their children. Eric Greitens called the accusations “false” and a “political hit job.”

Kunce, like Greitens, is a veteran. The 39-year-old attorney served 13 years in the Marines, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He grew up in a working class family in Jefferson City and recalled his family struggling to make ends meet after his sister was born with a heart condition.

“We went bankrupt, and we made it because people in that neighborhood brought food by the house, they passed the plate down my mom’s prayer group,” Kunce said.

Valentine, 65, is a longtime philanthropist but has never before run for office. She is the daughter of August “Gussie” Busch Jr., the longtime chair and CEO of Anheuser-Busch who built the St. Louis-based brewery into the world’s largest beermaker. The brewery was sold to InBev in 2008, but the Busch family remains prominent in St. Louis.

Valentine said she decided to enter the race after witnessing the “division in our country and the vitriol in our politics.”

For more than a century, Missouri was a reliable presidential swing state. But since 2008, the state has backed the Republican presidential candidate, including overwhelmingly backing Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Auditor Nicole Galloway is currently the lone Democrat holding statewide office, despite five of the eight statewide elected officials being Democrats a decade ago.

The divide is deep. Missouri’s two urban centers — Kansas City and St. Louis — are overwhelmingly Democratic. The suburbs are split. Most of the rest of the state is beet-red Republican.

Valentine said Democrats have lost ground in rural Missouri because they “stopped listening” to people. She stresses the need for better access to basics — broadband access, health care, jobs.

Kunce, like Senate candidate John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, is a populist hoping to win back rural voters. He wants to ban stock ownership for members of Congress, break up corporate monopolies and end foreign ownership of agricultural land. He said the government should spend money to rebuild the heartland, not to build up foreign countries.

Both leading Democrats have hit roadblocks. Some Democrats wonder if Kunce is too conservative, noting that he opposed abortion rights when he ran for a state House seat in 2006. He said he changed his mind after serving in the military in the Middle East, “seeing what it was like to live in a big-brother government where women had no rights.”

Valentine was forced to apologize in March after it was reported that at college age she participated in a debutante ball that was hosted by an organization that then banned Black and Jewish people.

Democrats know that the winner of the primary faces an uphill battle in November. But they’re hopeful, particularly if Greitens is the Republican candidate.

“He’s got a lot of baggage — a lot of baggage,” Butler said. “More than you generally see in a candidate. I think he would turn off a lot of Republicans.”