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Republican Eric Schmitt hopes Trump-style politics will win him Missouri Senate nomination

 Eric Schmitt, Missouri's attorney general, speaks to the media in November outside of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Eric Schmitt, Missouri's attorney general, speaks to the media in November outside of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis.

As a state senator, Schmitt valued cooperation over confrontation. But since becoming Attorney General, he's spent much of his time on legal actions against the Biden Administration — including attempting to overturn the 2020 election — and fighting local COVID-19 health rules.

This story is part of a series of profiles on leading candidates for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate race, from the Missouri Independent.

There’s an old joke around Jefferson City that AG stands for aspiring governor. And there’s a lot of truth in the jest.

Five of the 12 most recent attorneys general have run for governor. Three won.

But the office has more often been a step on the ladder to the U.S. Senate, with eight of those 12 reaching for the next rung.

Four, most recently Josh Hawley, made it to Washington.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt wants to be the fifth, but to get there he first needs to win the 21-candidate Republican primary on Aug. 2. And the fate of the politician once viewed as a moderate but now running as a blowtorch-wielding conservative may be up to former President Donald Trump.

Since announcing his campaign last year, Schmitt has consistently been among the three front-runners, running tight atop the polls with former Gov. Eric Greitens and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler.

“They say whoever I endorse in Missouri is going to win,” Trump said in an interview broadcast July 8 on One America News. “You’ve heard that. So everyone’s calling me. Eric (Greitens) is, Schmitt is, Vicky is, and I’m probably, at some point, going to make that endorsement.”

He wouldn’t say when he was going to make his endorsement, but Trump dismissed the idea of choosing Hartzler just before the broadcast aired.

In the meantime, Schmitt is doing everything he can to attach his image to Trump. An ad where he promises to “take a blowtorch to the Biden agenda” includes a photo of the two men together. And on a recent episode of Lou Dobb’s podcast, Schmitt invoked Trump’s name 19 times over the course of a 30 minute interview and called the investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection “an absolute joke.”

“This is just sort of like a temper tantrum, and all this production value, but the truth of the matter is, it’s not going anywhere,” Schmitt said. “And it shouldn’t, because it’s, quite frankly, a clown show.”

Trying to match Greitens’ anti-establishment image, Schmitt told Dobbs he’s “not interested in getting invited to cocktail parties” and being popular in Washington.

“We need more Trump Republicans who are willing to fight on big important issues and be unafraid and be disruptors,” Schmitt said. “And that’s why I’m running.”

But during his two terms in the Missouri Senate, Schmitt valued cooperation, not confrontation.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaking in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. in September 2019.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Associated Press
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaking in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. in September 2019.

The Senator

Schmitt, 47, began his political career as an alderman in his St. Louis County city of Glendale before winning election to the Missouri Senate in 2008, taking 55% of the vote in middle-class neighborhoods along Interstate 44.

In a Capitol tour video posted to his official webpage in 2014, Schmitt said he felt humbled by “the grandeur” of the Senate chamber.

“It reminds me,” he said, “that everyone has an opinion, everybody has a different background, and although we come from different parts of the state it is important for us to respect one another, and it speaks to the need for a more civil tone in politics, now more than ever.”

When Democratic state Sen. Tim Green, a union electrician, left office in 2012, Schmitt told the St. Louis Labor Tribune that they were boyhood friends who he trusted for advice.

Green, who the Labor Tribune called “the voice of organized labor in the state Senate,” told The Independent he and Schmitt worked together on many issues.

“There was a group of moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats that socially and personally got along,” Green said. “At the end of long days, there was no partisanship, there was just common friendship and sincere attempts to solve problems.”

If Schmitt’s political persona has changed, Green said, it is because primaries in both parties are pushing candidates to the extreme.

“I can only hope,” Green said, “that common sense and moderation once again becomes the norm because right now common sense and moderation don’t exist.”

Social conservative activists didn’t have much of a relationship with Schmitt during his time in the legislature.

“He wasn’t one of my go-to senators when he was in the Senate,” said activist Bev Ehlen, who coordinated volunteers for the 2004 campaign to ban same-sex marriage through a state constitutional amendment.

She’s now backing Schmitt for U.S. Senate, saying the difference in his politics is one of focus, not commitment.

“This is a different Eric Schmitt and that is one of the things I was able to learn about the change was that it wasn’t a change, and he was freed up to do what he wants to do,” Ehlen said. “Times are also now much tougher.”

As a senator, Schmitt pushed economic development bills, including the failed effort to enact tax credits supporting creation of a China-Missouri air freight hub called Aerotropolis. Schmitt was more successful as the co-sponsor of a bill cutting state income taxes and a bill limiting municipal revenues from traffic fines and court penalties in response to the uprising in Ferguson in 2014.

 Eric Schmitt’s support for an air freight hub for Chinese imports became a target in an ad for Eric Greitens aired during the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.
Team PAC
Eric Schmitt’s support for an air freight hub for Chinese imports became a target in an ad for Eric Greitens aired during the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.

Those bills show a conservative working on pro-growth and pro-freedom policies, said Jeremy Cady, state director for Americans For Prosperity, which is backing Schmitt with its PAC.

“Eric Schmitt, in the state Senate, worked and advanced a lot of those issues that we felt were very important at the time,” Cady said.

When he was unopposed for re-election to the Senate in 2012, Schmitt was endorsed by the AFL-CIO, recognition of his support on bills important to unions. He was blacklisted by Missouri Right to Life for supporting a bill to spur investment in new technologies.

Schmitt’s legislative agenda also had a personal focus, dealing with the issues his family faced with a son diagnosed with multiple conditions including tuberous sclerosis complex, a rare genetic disease, as well as autism and intractable epilepsy.

In his first year in office, he passed a bill formalizing the state’s program for supporting families with children on the autism spectrum. The next year he helped secure passage of a bill mandating health insurers to provide coverage for diagnosis and treatment of autism.

Serving alongside Schmitt left one former Republican colleague, Jane Cunningham, bitter about the experience. Cunningham was elected the same year as Schmitt from an adjoining St. Louis County district. She won a tough primary and says she knew Schmitt was in a tight race in the general election. So she donated almost $7,000 from her campaign fund and helped with door-to-door campaigning.

Once in the Senate, Cunningham said, Schmitt blocked her top priority bill to provide property tax relief.

Schmitt didn’t want to vote on it, she said, because it was opposed by school superintendents from his district. Cunningham said Schmitt often avoided politically sensitive votes.

On the last day of the 2013 legislative session, the 44th roll call of the day amid a rush of legislation had historic significance for the LGBTQ community. By a 19-11 vote, then-Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, won passage of a bill writing anti-discrimination protection in jobs and housing into state law.

Nine Republicans, including now-Gov. Mike Parson and now-Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, joined 10 Democrats to pass the bill, which ultimately failed in the House.

Four members were didn’t vote, including Schmitt.

Schmitt was on hand for the first 43 votes of the day and returned for the final seven, only skipping out on the vote on LGBTQ rights.

Cunningham was no longer in the Senate at the time, but said Schmitt’s disappearance on that vote fits his personality.

“I guess I found that when I wanted somebody with a backbone, somebody who was tested and proven, I began to see he doesn’t meet those qualifications,” Cunningham said.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt at a senate candidate forum in St. Charles at the state GOP's annual Lincoln Days on Feb. 12, 2022.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt at a senate candidate forum in St. Charles at the state GOP's annual Lincoln Days on Feb. 12, 2022. U.S. Reps. Billy Long and Vicky Hartzler and Attorney Mark McCloskey also attended the candidate forum.

Green, however, said the behavior is common among ambitious legislators.

“Anytime a sitting elected official has higher ambitions,” he said, “they are more cautious of how it will affect their political career than how it will affect the daily lives of people.”

Term limits ended his Senate career in 2016. Schmitt considered a bid for attorney general, but instead ran in an uncontested primary for state treasurer. Parson, who took over when Greitens resigned in 2018, appointed Schmitt as attorney general after Hawley defeated Sen. Claire McCaskill that fall.

Attorney General

Since changing offices, Schmitt has issued more news releases about his opposition to Biden Administration policies and local COVID-19 health rules than any other subjects.

On 68 occasions since Biden became president, often working jointly with other Republican attorneys general, Schmitt has announced legal actions, official comments on proposed regulations and strongly worded letters on education, immigration, pandemic, environmental and energy policies.

The actions have blocked repeal of Title 42, a Trump-era public health order used to quickly expel migrants, helped persuade the Supreme Court to overturn a New York law limiting who can carry a firearm but failed to end a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.

Schmitt also participated in the legal fight to overturn the results of the 2020 election, joining Texas in its unsuccessful attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. And after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Schmitt denied having advance knowledge of a robocall by an arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association encouraging “patriots” to participate in a march that ended in the violent attack.

Schmitt was vice-chairman of the association; the robocall was sponsored by the Rule of Law Defense Fund, the association’s political arm.

The first lawsuit Schmitt filed over COVID-19 was in April 2020 against China in an attempt to hold that nation and its institutions liable for the death and economic disruption from the pandemic. The lawsuit was dismissed July 8 when U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh ruled federal courts have no jurisdiction over China.

His offensive to block local COVID-19 regulations began in the summer of 2021, first by suing St. Louis, Kansas City and St. Louis and Jackson counties, then by suing Columbia Public Schools in a case seeking to create a class-action over school mask rules.

The judge denied Schmitt’s request and later dismissed the case.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt launched a new ad in GOP primary’s final weeks featuring him using a blowtorch.
Missouri Independent
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt launched a new ad in GOP primary’s final weeks featuring him using a blowtorch.

In January 2022, Schmitt sued 47 school districts alleging their rules requiring students to wear masks in class had no sanction in state law. All but two have been dismissed, with no final judgment, but Schmitt claims victory because those districts no longer require masks in classrooms.

His battles with local school districts aren’t just about COVID-19 rules. He’s alleging Sunshine Law violations by Springfield Public Schools to hide a “critical race theory” curriculum and filed a similar lawsuit against the Missouri School Boards Association. In June, at the urging of a Georgia not-for-profit, Schmitt subpoenaed records from several school districts about the use of what he called “personal, invasive surveys” but the districts say are part of complying with state education standards.

The avalanche of lawsuits against local entities cost Schmitt’s office a $500,000 increase he requested for his budget.

“As our attorney general continues to sue most of the citizens of this state, I don’t know why we are giving him another half million dollars,” state Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said as he proposed the cut during budget work in May..

Schmitt’s path

For Schmitt, defeat on Aug. 2 won’t push him out of the public arena. His term as attorney general does not end until 2025 and there are no limits on the number of times he can run for re-election.

Terry Smith, a political science professor at Columbia College, said in a recent interview with The Independent that he’s not sure Trump will make an endorsement. Trump has endured some high-profile defeats along with many victories in this year’s GOP races.

“He has been burned enough by prematurely endorsing losers that I think he reads the polls just like you and I do, and he is getting more strategic about his endorsements,” Smith said.

The latest Trafalgar Group poll, taken in late June, showed a 1.2-percentage-point spread between Hartzler, who was leading, Greitens and Schmitt.

“If these polls stay like they are, there will be no endorsement,” Smith predicted.

But he agrees with Trump that if the former president does endorse, it will decide the primary.

Schmitt’s strategy is to get Trump to see it as a two-way contest. In the Dobb’s interview, Schmitt presented the case that he has likely made to Trump himself.

“This race comes down to me and Eric Greitens, who quit and was a former governor, lots of scandals, would lose the seat to the Democrats,” Schmitt said. “It’s just a mess. And he’s a quitter.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature for the Missouri Independent.
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