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After two years of GOP infighting, the Missouri Senate conservative caucus is disbanding

Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, speaks during a press conference of the Senate conservative caucus on March 10, 2022.
Tessa Weinberg
Missouri Independent
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, speaks during a press conference of the Senate conservative caucus on March 10, 2022.

Originally founded in 2018, the group has been involved in an escalating war with Republican leadership, using parliamentary maneuvers to gum up the Senate and push controversial amendments pertaining to transgender student athletes and vaccine mandates.

After more than two years of warring with Republican leaders, the Missouri Senate’s conservative caucus will disband, the group announced Monday afternoon.

In a statement released to the media, five incumbent members of the caucus said it was no longer needed after the outcome of the Aug. 2 GOP primaries.

“The Republican primary electorate decisively voted in favor of the conservative message espoused by conservative caucus-aligned Republicans,” said the statement signed by GOP Sens. Rick Brattin, Bill Eigel, Andrew Koenig, Denny Hoskins and Mike Moon.

“Moving forward,” the statement continued, “there is no need for us to be defensive about passing good legislation — we believe the class of Republican nominees vying to fill open and existing Missouri Senate seats would demand the same results we have been looking for these past four years.”

Candidates aligned with and supported by the conservative caucus won three competitive primaries for open seats and knocked off one incumbent Republican — Sen. Bill White of Joplin.

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

In the Monday afternoon statement, the five members of the now dissolved conservative caucus said they hoped to “seek unity within a single majority caucus in the Missouri Senate chamber under exclusively the Republican banner.”

To do that, the statement said, there needs to be new leadership in the chamber “that is not constrained by the labels of the past.”

“Such a change is necessary to achieve peace within a body that has seen little of it since the final legislative day of the 2021 first regular session,” they wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, is the current odds-on favorite to become the chamber’s president pro tem. He has not shied away from publicly quarreling with the conservative caucus, at one point accusing the group of turning the Senate into a “clown show.”

Rowden could not be immediately reached for comment.

The real leadership fight in the Senate is expected to be over who replaces Rowden as majority floor leader. The position comes with the power to manage the Senate debate calendar, giving the majority leader influence over what legislation moves forward and how much time it receives on the Senate floor.

The three candidates discussed as possible successors include Koenig and Sens. Mike Bernskoetter of Jefferson City and Cindy O’Laughlin of Shelbina.

O’Laughlin was originally a member of the conservative caucus but hasn’t been affiliated with the group in more than a year. Bernskoetter is considered the candidate with closest ties to current GOP leaders.

Originally founded in 2018, the Senate conservative caucus has been involved in an escalating war with Republican leadership. It culminated this year, with 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.

The drama then spilled onto the campaign trail, with a PAC supported by the conservative caucus vying to increase its numbers — and its power within the chamber.

Republican Senate leadership have publicly threatened to use procedural maneuvers of their own to quash conservative caucus filibusters, which they argued were simply glorified publicity stunts.

Last week, Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, hinted that Senate rules may need to change in order to prevent the conservative caucus from hijacking the chamber.

In their Monday statement, the members of the conservative caucus decried any such step as an abandonment of Senate tradition, which calls for unlimited debate.

“We know of no senator, current or former, who claims that the prestige and traditions of the Missouri Senate are stronger today than when our current leadership team took the helm in 2018,” the statement said. “The next leadership team must do better.”

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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