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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Kacen Bayless and Jonathan Shorman

The race for Missouri governor emerges from shadows. Who are the likely candidates?

The first ballots won’t be cast for 20 months, but the Missouri Republican race for governor is rapidly emerging from the shadows.

A political action committee supporting Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, who has already been in the race for nearly two years, has secured $500,000 in donations from Missouri’s most prominent donor to GOP candidates.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Bill Eigel, a hard-right lawmaker, recently formed an exploratory committee. He’s calling for an end to the state’s personal property tax.

And a third likely candidate, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, is spearheading a highly controversial proposed obscenity regulation for libraries and promising to work with lawmakers to restrict foreign ownership of farmland.

As Missouri moves past a high-profile U.S. Senate race, the three declared or likely candidates for governor are moving to build their public profiles and court conservative activists and donors — even if two of the three have yet to formally enter the race. The early positioning comes as Republicans begin to contemplate the future after Gov. Mike Parson terms out of office in January 2025.

While much of the general public may not be eager to think about an election almost two years away, the ongoing maneuvering, meet-and-greeting and donor sweet-talking will shape the trajectory of the race between now and the Republican primary in August 2024. And campaign consultants and political observers who spoke to The Star expect the Republican field to be mostly set by this summer.

“At this point, it’s really fundraising and building support, whether it’s community-based, conservative organizations — whatever might align with one’s pathway in the primary,” said James Harris, a Jefferson City-based Republican consultant who isn’t working for any of the likely candidates.

The early campaigning is in line with recent Missouri elections. Ahead of the 2016 election, the last race without an incumbent governor running, Chris Koster, then the Democratic attorney general, said as early as April 2013 that he was preparing to run. Former Republican House Speaker Catherine Hanaway said she was running in February 2014.

Democrats will also choose a candidate in the August 2024 primary, but no significant names have so far stepped forward. Missouri has become an increasingly tough statewide environment for Democrats; the last Democrat to win a statewide election was Auditor Nicole Galloway in 2018.

For now, much of the early attention is centered on Republicans.

As Kehoe, Eigel and Ashcroft compete for the attention of the state’s Republican base, the early jostling is expected to play out in donor phone calls, party gatherings and, perhaps most consequentially, in the Missouri General Assembly. Both Eigel and Ashcroft are backing legislation that could prove popular with conservatives while generating profile-building headlines.

Kehoe, however, is the only major Republican so far to officially announce that he’s in the race.

Big donors’ early favorite?

Parson appointed Kehoe as his lieutenant governor in 2018. Both Parson and Kehoe won re-election in 2020. Kehoe was previously a state senator, serving as majority leader from 2015 to 2018. A Jefferson City resident, he originally made a name for himself as a local car dealer.

As lieutenant governor, Kehoe presides over the Senate. But his role is otherwise only loosely defined, with the office traditionally focused on seniors and veterans. The position has given him some statewide prominence while allowing him to mostly stay above the day-to-day political fray.

At times, Kehoe has served as acting governor, perhaps allowing Republicans to envision him in the job. His most recent stint came last month when Parson traveled to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Greece for a trade mission trip.

While briefly serving in the state’s top role, Kehoe got to name his picks for vacancies on two state level boards — the Alzheimer’s State Plan Task Force and the Missouri Route 66 Centennial Commission.

Requests by The Star for an interview with Kehoe over the past week went unfulfilled, as representatives of the lieutenant governor didn’t make him available.

During a recent spot on the Elijah Haahr Show on Springfield-based radio station KWTO, Kehoe made no mention of his campaign for governor, but said he traveled roughly 55,000 miles across the state this year. Haahr is a former Missouri House speaker.

“Politics is the worst part of this job, but meeting the people you meet across the state — their stories, their successes, sometimes their failures and challenges — that’s the best part of the job,” Kehoe said.

Kehoe told Haahr that he hopes to work with lawmakers next year on legislation related to workforce development, curtailing crime and educational issues such as school choice.

“I think when we focus on educational efforts, that’s where we’re going to see the best return on investment, especially when you look at those 10, 20 years down the road,” he said

After entering the race in March 2021, Kehoe quickly locked down the support of Rex Sinquefield, a retired St. Louis investor. Sinquefield first donated $250,000 in December 2021 to a PAC supporting Kehoe, American Dream PAC. A year later, Sinquefield recently donated another $250,000.

The support of Sinquefield suggests the lieutenant governor may be an early frontrunner in courting big Republican donors. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who won a bitter Republican primary for U.S. Senate in August and won the general election in November, also had backing from Sinquefield.

“This is going to be a very expensive primary,” said Jean Evans, a former director of the Missouri GOP.

Political strategists who spoke with The Star said they expect Kehoe to try to garner support from the more traditional Republican base. Sinquefield’s early support for Kehoe sends a “pretty strong signal” that he will have access to resources at a level other candidates may not be able to match, said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“That can be intimidating from a primary where you have to distinguish yourself from others with something besides your party identification,” Squire said.

Jay Ashcroft builds profile

Ashcroft may not have the support of Sinquefield, but he does have a well-known name in Missouri politics. The son of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the secretary of state in recent weeks has taken steps to raise his visibility among conservative voters.

In October, Ashcroft submitted a controversial rule that would threaten state aid to public libraries if they make “age-inappropriate materials” available to minors. The proposal builds upon months of attempts by conservatives across the state to ban a subset of children’s books, most of which have LGBTQ characters or include themes about race.

Librarians and free speech advocates have strongly opposed the rule and the proposal has since received more than 10,000 public comments.

Ashcroft has also jumped into the controversy over the “independent legislature theory” case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which could give state legislatures sweeping power over elections for Congress and the presidency. Ashcroft submitted an amicus brief to the court and traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the court’s oral arguments earlier this month.

Evans said Ashcroft would have a significant advantage in the governor’s race because of his family name. She lauded his recent efforts to get his name out and build up his political resume to potential voters.

“They should be doing all those things locally and nationally,” Evans said. “All of these candidates have particular strengths that they’re going to have to use at the end of the day.”

In an interview, Ashcroft said he remains focused on his job as secretary of state.

“I think it’s really easy for politicians to start talking about the next office when they have a job to do where they are,” he said.

Ashcroft said he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to use his current office to catapult himself to a higher office.

“If I’m going to announce for higher office or something like that, I want people to be able to see that they entrusted me with the secretary of state’s office, I did that well, I did that efficiently, I treated everyone equally,” he said.

“If I announced for something else, hopefully they would use that as an indication that I should be provided another opportunity.”

Still, Ashcroft is promoting a legislative agenda that dovetails with a potential Republican campaign. Many of his priorities center on changes to election law, as well as the proposed library rule. He did not offer specifics, but broadly said he wants to ensure that everyone who meets the minimum voting requirements can vote. He also said he wants to make it “hard to cheat” and for people to trust election results. In the past, he has expressed opposition to expanded mail voting.

He is also supporting legislation to create a set of rights parents may employ over their child’s education, including reviewing curriculum.

Additionally, Ashcroft has worked with state Sen. Jason Bean of Holcomb and state Rep. Kurtis Gregory of Marshall, both Republicans, to draft legislation that would limit foreign ownership of Missouri farmland.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight during the U.S. Senate race after a series of campaign attacks against Schmitt, the Republican nominee, highlighted his vote in favor of a 2013 law that allowed foreign companies to own state farmland.

Bill Eigel courts conservative voters

Eigel, a Weldon Springs Republican, announced in September that he was exploring a bid for governor. Since then, he’s been traveling across the state to talk with potential Republican primary voters.

Eigel’s six years in the General Assembly have been largely defined by his leadership role in the state Senate’s Conservative Caucus, a hard-right faction of senators that frequently sparred with the more moderate GOP leadership over legislation the group felt wasn’t conservative enough. The group formally disbanded earlier this year.

Eigel is expected to craft his campaign around the same hard-right issues that have characterized much of his time in office. Last week, Eigel called on Chesterfield Mayor Bob Nation to ensure that an entertainment venue did not allow underage people to attend an upcoming drag show. The Chesterfield venue later updated its website to say the event was for ages 18 and up because of “mature content.”

“Eigel probably has the clearest sort of constituency,” said Squire, the political science professor. “He seems to me to be the candidate who probably is going to appeal to the most conservative members of the Republican Party.”

In an interview, Eigel said the message of his potential campaign for governor would be similar to what he’s proposed as a state legislator. He said he plans to continue traveling the state for the next six to eight months. His main priority is to eliminate the state’s personal property tax.

“This is a tax that punishes working and middle income class households just for the crime of having a car,” he said.

Eigel also attacked his potential opponents for their political resumes, arguing that some of their records weren’t conservative enough.

“We’re not going to solve the frustration and disappointment that I’m hearing about in Republican circles by asking for more of the same,” he said.

The first major public event in the still-emerging race for governor may come in February, when the Missouri Republican Party holds its statewide Lincoln Days gathering. The annual event, which will be held in Springfield, will mark an early opportunity for candidates to preview their campaigns and build relationships with the party’s grassroots.

“They’ve got to work really hard,” Evans said. “On top of their legislative duties, it’s a full time job to be campaigning up until the primary date.”

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