The makings of a Democratic comeback are there in Missouri.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt is retiring. Former Gov. Eric Greitens, chased from office by accusations of sexual misconduct and campaign finance violations, is a top candidate to win the GOP nomination for Blunt's seat in 2022. And the state’s other Republican senator, Josh Hawley, saw his popularity dip after his fist-raising devotion to former President Donald Trump became an enduring image from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
All Democrats need is someone they are confident can make the most of the opportunity.
“Having that statewide ID is really an important piece of this, if we’re able to do that,” said state Sen. Jill Schupp, who has not yet endorsed a candidate.
It’s early days, but Schupp and other party leaders acknowledge that none of the five announced Democratic contenders has the name recognition or familiarity ideal for such a race. Recruiting is a challenge in a state Trump won by more than 15 percentage points in 2020 and Democrats have won only one statewide race in the last eight years.
Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who became a national star during his unsuccessful campaign against Blunt in 2016, has said he’s not interested. Former Sen. Claire McCaskill, who lost to Hawley in 2018, has ruled out a run. Clint Zweifel, a former state treasurer, wrote in an email that politics is “in my past.”
Some Democrats now hope that former Gov. Jay Nixon, who left office in 2017, will run. Nixon has said little about the race publicly, though, telling local media in March that a Senate bid was “not what I’m focused on right now.” He did not respond to a call or emails seeking comment.
“When he was governor, he won in rural Missouri, and that's the area where we need to strengthen,” said Jim Kabell, a Missouri labor leader and national Teamsters official. “We need to change some hearts and minds in rural Missouri. Jay Nixon was a guy that did that.”
For now, Kabell is backing Scott Sifton, a former state senator from the St. Louis area. Sifton has been running since before Blunt announced his retirement and raised more than $300,000 in the first two months of his campaign. Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway, the party’s lone statewide officeholder and candidate for governor last year, has endorsed him.
“Obviously, if Nixon got in, I think it becomes easier to raise money from Democrats across the country than it is with Scott,” Kabell said.
Sifton, 46, frames his candidacy around the economic struggles his family faced when he was a child and the tough races he’s won. He downplays speculation that Nixon or other better-known Democrats might enter the race.
“Primaries are a good thing for the party,” Sifton said. “It's a good chance for voters to kick the tires on each of us, and I'm excited to stand by my record of getting things done and standing firm on Democratic values.”
So far, Sifton’s main rival is Lucas Kunce, a Marine Corps veteran from Independence who has the support of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group closely aligned with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Kunce, who has raised more than $280,000 since forming a campaign committee in December, officially declared his candidacy the day after Blunt announced his retirement.
Like Sifton, Kunce, 38, makes the financial hardships of his childhood central to his campaign. He presents himself as a populist and brags that he can see the home of former President Harry Truman — “the original progressive populist” — from his own.
“We're really building a grassroots campaign, and it's showing,” Kunce said. “The only thing I think about every day is how I'm going to get my message out, and meeting people in Missouri.”
The race includes three other Democrats: Timothy Shepard, a progressive activist from Kansas City; Jewel Kelly, an Air Force veteran from Jefferson County who emphasizes his “moderate” approach; and Spencer Toder, a St. Louis County businessman.
State Sen. Brian Williams of the St. Louis area and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas are among those who have expressed interest in running.
“Missouri deserves to have a strong leader in the U.S. Senate — someone serious, someone that's going to really tackle important issues,” said Williams, 38, who will make a decision this summer after the legislative session ends. “I won't sit on the sideline if I don't see a candidate that fulfills that obligation.”
Toder, 35, is the CEO of a medical device company and has experience in real estate consulting. The lack of a big name in the field encouraged him to enter the primary.
“You shouldn't have had to have been a politician your entire life in order to be a politician,” said Toder, who launched his campaign Tuesday. “I do think that that is exactly the right time for someone without a political background to step up and show that they understand what it means just to be a Missourian.”
Katharine Cooksey, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has not backed a GOP candidate, pointed to the early Democratic field as a sign that the seat is not competitive.
“Missourians overwhelmingly support the GOP’s pro-family, pro-military, small government agenda,” Cooksey said. “That’s why Missouri Democrats have stumbled in every recent election, and their chances won’t improve in 2022 as their bench of qualified candidates keeps dwindling.”
On the Republican side, Greitens and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt are already running. The GOP primary also could draw one or more members of the state’s congressional delegation. And Mark McCloskey — the St. Louis lawyer who scored a Republican National Convention speaking gig last year after brandishing a rifle at anti-racism protesters — told Politico last month that he might enter the race.
Greitens has tailored his campaign to Trump allies. He declared his candidacy on Fox News and has tapped Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s partner, as his national campaign chair. One poll of GOP voters from late March showed Greitens and Schmitt, who also flexes his Trump loyalty, essentially tied.
Democrats believe the Jan. 6 riot, fueled by Trump’s persistent lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, hurt Republicans in Missouri, not least because of Hawley’s prominent role. And though at least two of the three won’t be on the ballot next year, Democrats see an opportunity to campaign against Trump, Hawley and Greitens as some sort of three-headed GOP monster.
“The Republican Party has gone too far,” said Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Michael Butler, who is neutral in the primary but believes “a guy like Sifton” could win a general election, despite lower name recognition.
“There are enough Democrats, and there's enough disdain for Republican extremism in our state that we can be successful,” Butler added.
A poll last month by Remington Research Group and the political news outlet Missouri Scout found Greitens and Schmitt both leading Sifton and Nixon in hypothetical matchups, with only the Greitens-Nixon contest (48 percent to 44 percent) within the margin of error. With or without Nixon, some Democrats find it hard not be pessimistic.
“I can imagine how Democrats can talk themselves into it — how if Greitens is the nominee they could win,” said one Democratic strategist who has worked on Missouri races and requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race. “I wouldn’t risk my family on that bet. But anything’s possible in Missouri politics. I’ve seen a dead man elected to the Senate.”
The strategist was referring to Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat who died in an October 2000 plane crash and weeks later posthumously unseated Sen. John Ashcroft. Stories like that, or like Kander’s unanticipated national rise in 2016, fuel the anything-can-happen optimism.
“Lucas Kunce and Scott Sifton are going to leave no stone unturned and they're already doing what they need to do to get their name out there, to contact donors, to talk with voters,” said Schupp, who won her seat by beating Ashcroft’s son in 2014. “So much often depends on the year, and who comes out to vote, and whether we put forward a message that resonates with people.”