With time slipping away, Missouri’s four Republican candidates are heightening their attacks — in person and in their ads — as they head into the final stretch before the Aug. 2 primary.
By even their own accounts, Wednesday’s debate at St. Louis Public Radio’s studio – and broadcast by public radio stations around the state — appeared to be their liveliest. And the nastiest.
Want to hear to the debate in full? Listen here.
Former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway led the charge with the first of a series of jabs directed at former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, who is making his first bid for public office. He also has raised the most money and has attracted attention with his campaign ads that feature him firing off weapons.
The state’s problems, said Hanaway in her opening statement, “can’t be fixed by explosive ads from candidates with no experience. You would not pick a first-time pilot, a first-time heart surgeon. I encourage you not to pick a governor who will need on-the-job training.”
Joining in were businessman John Brunner and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who both challenged Greitens to return $1 million he has received from California venture capitalist Michael Goguen. The donor was recently forced to step down from his post at Sequoia Capital after a woman filed suit, claiming that Goguen had kept her as a sex slave for 13 years.
Kinder called the Goguen donations “the dirtiest money that has ever been brought into any Missouri campaign.”
Greitens reaffirmed his stance that he thought it was unfair to denigrate Goguen before the court fight was resolved. He then jabbed back at Kinder, taking note of the 2011 controversy that beset the lieutenant governor because of a friendship with a former stripper.
Afterward, Greitens said he had expected the attacks. His three rivals, he said, “are desperate. These are folks who’ve been in 20 different elections and they are desperate because they know their political careers are ending.”
Greitens, in turn, tangled with Hanaway several times on several issues – including guns and Medicaid -- during the almost 90-minute debate.
The heightened tensions were notable because, for the most part, the four Republicans agree on most issues. All four repeatedly affirmed their support for gun rights, their opposition to abortion and their vows not to expand Medicaid in Missouri, as sought by the Affordable Care Act.
Reaffirm opposition to Medicaid expansion, abortion
Kinder asserted that Medicaid spending already is forcing the state to spend a higher percentage of its income, and blamed the health-care program — which generally covers low-income and disabled people — for the state’s reduced spending on public education.
As alternatives, Hanaway and Brunner called for expanding the use of physician assistants and nurse practitioners. Greitens blasted the health care he received from the Veterans Administration after he had been injured in Iraq, adding that he thought it best to promote private health care options.
All four pledged that, if governor, they’d go to court in support of Missouri’s restrictions on abortion clinics, some of which are likely to be challenged because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision tossing out similar mandates in Texas.
“Life is under attack,” said Brunner. “And you’re going to need a governor and an attorney general who will fight for life all the way.”
Said Kinder: “The odds may not be good” of winning the court fight, “but you bet I’d launch the battle.” Kinder added that he hoped the high court would revisit the issue and change its mind.
Hanaway called on voters to “be wary of Greitens’’ because “he’s the only candidate up here who was not endorsed by Missouri Right to Life.” The group’s officials have said Greitens failed to fill out their questionnaire.
Greitens emphasized his opposition to abortion, and cited his experience working with one of Mother Theresa's clinics in India.
Ferguson and education vouchers
All four candidates emphasized their support for law enforcement, but they indicated that they might be open to the Ferguson Commission’s recommendation that the Missouri attorney general or the Highway Patrol be brought in to investigate any fatal shootings that involve a police officer.
All four also called for “more choice’’ for parents when it comes to public education, but their views appeared to be more nuanced when it comes to proposed vouchers that would allow the use of public money for private or parochial schools.
Kinder and Brunner said they opposed vouchers. Greitens said he supported “quality education,’’ while Hanaway indicated that she may support some sort of voucher program, saying parents should have the choice of charter schools, parochial or private schools, as well as state aid to assist home-schooling families.
Back Trump, but not all of his views
As they have previously, all four said they support presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump for president. But in a new spin, all four acknowledged they weren’t “totally comfortable’’ with all of his views.
All four said, for example, they oppose a blanket ban on Muslim immigrants, as Trump had initially proposed. But all four GOP candidates do support more stringent screening of immigrant applicants from countries that appear to harbor terrorists, including Iraq and Syria. Trump currently supports a ban on immigrants from such countries.
All four also emphasized that their support for Trump was prompted, in part, because of their solid opposition to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Greitens, for example, contended that "we're all united in the belief that she cannot be our next commander-in-chief’’ and criticized the FBI for declining to prosecute her over her handling of some classified emails.
Even without the email scandal, said Hanaway, Clinton is "diametrically opposed to everything I stand for." Hanaway cited Clinton's support for abortion rights and some curbs on guns.
Tangle over donations, lobbyists
Aside from the jabs at Greitens donor Goguen, the four candidates generally had few beefs about Missouri’s current campaign-finance system, which has no limits on the size of donations, but does have strict requirements on when they must be reported to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Hanaway defended her huge donations from financier Rex Sinquefield, who has provided more than half of her campaign war chest, emphasizing that he resides in Missouri.
Greitens said the generous donations from out-of-state supporters show that they are invested in his message of making the state better. Kinder – who has received at least $500,000 from members of the Humphreys family -- praised the state’s laws as providing “transparency.”
But Kinder did blast the heavy spending by outside groups who are not required to identify their donors and implied that the state’s laws should mandate that they do so.
Brunner, a millionaire who is largely self-funding his campaign, said he “cannot be bought’’ and therefore was the most trustworthy of the candidates. His opponents, he said, are "beholden to the donor close."
All four said they supported stricter ethics laws in the state governing lawmakers, such as curbs on lobbyists gifts. But that discussion erupted into a round of attacks, as Greitens called on his rivals to make public the gifts they’ve received from lobbyists — and his rivals, in turn, called on him to release the names of groups who’ve paid him to make speeches.
Help inform our coverage
In preparation for this debate, we invited questions from our Public Insight Network. Learn more about the network and how you can become a source for St. Louis Public Radio here. You may see questions PIN sources asked here.