JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — During his time in the office, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has been willing to acknowledge and elevate those that have promoted conspiracy theories and false claims about elections.
Following former President Donald Trump’s debunked theories after the 2020 presidential election, Ashcroft said he was confident that Missouri’s elections were secure. But, at the same time, the Republican has taken an approach that critics say supports unproven claims about the elections in which he runs.
Just after the start of this year’s legislative session, The Kansas City Star revealed in January that Ashcroft met with right-wing conspiracy theorist and MyPillow founder Mike Lindell in Jefferson City. Lindell played a major role in promoting baseless lies about the 2020 election and has continued to elevate claims in the years that have followed.
And, last week, The Guardian reported that Ashcroft was among 10 state election officials who attended a secret February conference held by three groups that spread election denial lies and advocate for stricter voting laws.
Now, the 49-year-old secretary of state is running for governor in what will likely be a hotly contested Republican primary. Ashcroft is poised to run his 2024 campaign appealing to the right-wing of the Republican Party through hot-button national topics such as election integrity and social issues.
Critics of Ashcroft who spoke with The Star say he has largely used his position as secretary of state to elevate himself in front of conservative voters. They argue that, while serving as Missouri’s top election official, he made frequent gestures to fringe groups promoting false claims about the security of elections.
Those actions, critics say, illustrate a candidate willing to entertain conspiracies to get elected. And voting rights advocates say his actions have made it harder for Missourians to vote.
“I have not yet seen evidence that there are lines that Jay Ashcroft is not willing to cross,” said Jason Kander, Ashcroft’s immediate predecessor as secretary of state who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 2016. “I’m worried that he is somebody who views whatever office he holds as merely a vehicle to elevate him to the next office and not as a very important responsibility that goes beyond his ideological agenda.”
Ashcroft, in a statement provided by his campaign, said he’s willing to work with anyone “who wants to ensure Missouri has the most free, fair, and secure elections in the country.” The statement cited a report from the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative thinktank, that said Missouri was ranked third nationally in “election integrity.”
“As Secretary of State, I’ve made voter ID the law, ended private funding of election operations, and eliminated drop boxes. I am committed to listening to people across the spectrum to protect our democracy,” the statement said.
Defenders of Ashcroft in interviews with The Star painted him as an outspoken conservative who believes what he says and defends what he thinks is important.
“Jay Ashcroft will come out and he will take very public stances on the issues that the Republican Party’s base feels are really important issues,” said John Lamping, a former Republican state senator who said his comments were not an endorsement of Ashcroft.
Ashcroft is looking at a Republican primary still more than a year away in which he will likely face Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and state Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican. The race between three Republican office holders is certain to hone in on their past political histories.
Ashcroft was elected secretary of state in 2016 and reelected in 2020.
“Jay Ashcroft has repeatedly touted ‘Missouri’s elections are safe and secure,’” said Denise Lieberman, the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition’s director and general counsel. “And yet continues to uplift, validate unfounded narratives about voter fraud in order to stoke fears, to propel a radical anti-voter agenda.”
Last year, Ashcroft supported a new GOP-led state law that enacted sweeping changes to how elections are conducted in Missouri. The law, which requires voters to show a government issued ID at the ballot box and bans touchscreen voting machines after 2024, was decried by voting rights advocates as an attempt to stifle voting rights.
And the Republican secretary of state earlier this year pulled Missouri out of a nonprofit organization formed in 2012 that analyzes voter registration, motor vehicle department and other data to help maintain accurate data rolls and eliminate duplicate registrations.
Ashcroft’s decision came after some Republicans grew suspicious of the organization, commonly referred to as ERIC, amid the conspiracies promoted by Trump and his supporters.
Kander, the former secretary of state, told The Star that there were two types of election officials in the country: those who view voters as customers of the process and those who view them as criminals. He said Ashcroft views his job as the latter.
Ashcroft’s conflicting statements that Missouri’s elections are secure while also meeting with conspiracy theorists is not nuanced, Kander said. It’s “just dishonest and it’s cowardly.”
Ashcroft as potential governor
While Ashcroft has been criticized for his decisions related to elections, others have lauded his hands-on approach to statewide issues.
“He’s traveled the state and has worked with every county clerk and every election authority throughout his tenure as secretary of state,” said state Rep. Peggy McGaugh, a Carrollton Republican and former county clerk. “I worked with numerous (secretaries of state) in my 30 year career as county clerk, but I don’t remember any of them traveling the state like he has.”
McGaugh, who said her comments were not an endorsement of Ashcroft, has sponsored legislation that would make sweeping changes to Missouri’s elections. In an interview with The Star, she pushed back on criticism of her and Ashcroft’s support of Missouri’s new election law saying last year’s election was a “resounding success.”
“If he runs the governor’s office like he has the secretary of state’s office, he’ll surround himself with good people, he’ll be hands on, and it’ll be something that we can rely on — him being fair and honest.”
Lamping, the former Republican state senator, said Ashcroft would take a much different approach to the governorship than Gov. Mike Parson, whose term ends in 2025. Ashcroft, he said, would be much more outspoken about conservative ideological issues.
“What are things dominating Republican Party primary voters in the last six months? It was (COVID-19) mandates, maybe it’s CRT, certainly transgenderism,” he said.
Kander said he would expect Ashcroft to use the position of governor to eye higher office.
“He has clearly approached the job of secretary of state as its main function is to elevate Jay Ashcroft to whatever the next level is,” he said. “And I think if he’s the governor, that will be that much more damaging.”
Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City-based attorney who has worked for prominent Missouri Democrats, including former Gov. Jay Nixon and former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, said Ashcroft has been one of the most politically aggressive secretaries of state he has seen.
The position, he said, has not been historically controversial or political, but rather an office that ensures elections are run on time and business filings get done.
“Particularly lately, he’s using his office to sort of establish his conservative street cred, which has become a common thing, I think, among Republican candidates,” Hatfield said.
Hatfield said he hopes that Ashcroft’s movement further to the right doesn’t help him in the race. But it has helped in the past, he said, pointing to U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt, who previously served as state attorney general.
“I think at some point, I assume the electorate will hold people accountable for extreme positions. But we haven’t seen it,” Hatfield said.
(Kansas City Star reporters Maia Bond and Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.)