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Conservative caucus will likely expand their power in Missouri Senate after GOP primary wins

The Missouri State Capitol on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021, in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
This Missouri State Capitol on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021, in Jefferson City, Missouri.

The victories likely mean the caucus — which has quarreled with GOP leadership and used procedural roadblocks to grind the chamber to a halt — will grow from seven official members last year to potentially nine in 2023.

Candidates expected to align with the conservative caucus in the Missouri Senate had a good night on Tuesday, winning primaries in three open seats and knocking off one incumbent.

The victories likely mean the caucus — which has quarreled with GOP leadership and used procedural roadblocks to grind the chamber to a halt for the better part of two years — will grow from seven official members last year to potentially nine in 2023.

“The 100 PAC invested in four races. We won all four,” said Jim Lembke, a former state senator and legislative staffer running 100 PAC, a political action committee aligned with the conservative caucus.

“These candidates proudly carried our banner,” Lemkbe said. “The message of the conservative caucus resonated with the grassroots base.”

While there are Democratic candidates in many of these districts, in past elections they have each been solidly Republican, making the primary winner likely to prevail in November.

The biggest win for the conservative caucus likely came in Joplin, where first-term state Sen. Bill White was defeated by Jill Carter, a first-time candidate.

White, who previously represented the area in the Missouri House for four terms, fell short by five percentage points. Carter is unopposed this November.

Lembke’s PAC also got behind state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman in a Jefferson County district; restaurant owner Ben Brown in a Franklin County-based district; and state Rep. Nick Schroer in a St. Charles County district.

In each race, the conservative caucus-backed candidate defeated rivals who were considered more closely aligned with Republican Senate leadership.

“With your help and hard work, we sent a message that St. Charles County families want a proven conservative serving us in the Missouri Senate,” Schroer said in a statement after his victory Tuesday night.

One member of the conservative caucus that won’t return to Jefferson City next year is Eric Burlison, who gave up his seat to run for Congress. He won the Republican primary Tuesday, and goes into the fall a heavy favorite in the southwestern Missouri district.

He’ll be replaced by state Rep. Curtis Trent of Springfield, who defeated businessman Brian Gelner after receiving support from Missouri Right to Life, which aligned with the conservative caucus, and RightPath PAC, which aligned with GOP leadership.

Trent is unopposed this fall.

Two other conservative caucus members who ran for Congress — Rick Brattin and Mike Moon — fell short and will continue to serve in the state Senate.

On the other side of the Senate divide, six incumbent Republicans who have typically sided with the party’s leadership won re-election Tuesday night. Most cruised to easy victories.

The closest call came in the race between state Sen. Justin Brown of Rolla and state Rep. Suzie Pollock of Lebanon. Brown defeated Pollock by less than 400 votes after vastly outspending her in the campaign’s homestretch.

State Sen. Mike Cierpiot also held onto his seat, scoring less than half the vote but still prevailing over a pair of candidates who ran to his right in the Jackson County district.

Cierpiot garnered 9,083 votes. His two opponents combined got 9,099 votes.

Incumbent Sen. Lincoln Hough of Springfield, a regular target of conservative caucus scorn, fended off a challenge from former Springfield City Councilor Angela Romine, winning 56% of the vote.

State Rep. Travis Fitzwater of Fulton, who most believe will align with GOP leadership, prevailed in the crowded primary to replace term-limited Sen. Jeannie Riddle.

Also likely to align with GOP leadership is state Rep. Rusty Black of Chillicothe, who cruised to victory in the primary to replace term-limited Sen. Dan Hegeman.

Republicans hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate.

But as GOP infighting intensified over the last two years, the 34-member Missouri Senate became split into three factions — the seven-member conservative caucus, 17 senators aligned with Republican leadership and 10 Democrats.

Throughout the 2022 session, conservative caucus members used parliamentary maneuvers to gum up the Senate and, with their priorities failing to get traction, turned otherwise anodyne bills into vehicles for controversial amendments pertaining to transgender student athletes and vaccine mandates.

The acrimony between the two factions became so bad that the Senate adjourned a day early for the first time since a fixed adjournment date was set in the state constitution in 1952.

If all seats remain in control of the party that currently holds them, the new breakdown of the Senate will likely be a nine-member conservative caucus, 15 senators aligned with leadership and 10 Democrats.

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Jason Hancock has been writing about Missouri since 2011, most recently as lead political reporter for The Kansas City Star. He has spent nearly two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, and has a track record of exposing government wrongdoing and holding elected officials accountable.
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