Jacob Turk has Jackson County Republican leaders in a panic.
He’s run for Congress six times as a Republican against U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, each time coming up short.
Now Turk has his eyes on a vacant seat in the Missouri Senate left open after Republican Sen. Will Kraus was appointed to a state job by the governor. But the Republican committee in Jackson County chose someone else to be the GOP nominee in the Nov. 7 special election — House Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot of Lee’s Summit.
Turk, also of Lee’s Summit, said Republican insiders shouldn’t get to dictate whom voters can choose on Election Day. So he and a team of volunteers spent weeks collecting enough signatures to put his name on the ballot as an independent candidate.
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Republicans pleaded with him not to run, fearing he could split the GOP vote and hand the race to a Democrat for only the second time in nearly 40 years. Two party leaders went so far as to file a lawsuit hoping to knock him off the ballot, even hiring a forensic document examiner to try to discredit some of the signatures he collected.
Neither tactic worked. Turk will appear on the November ballot next to Cierpiot and Democrat Hillary Shields, a fact that is causing dread to creep into the hearts of Jackson County GOP leaders.
“Hillary’s only chance is with Turk on the ballot,” Cierpiot said. “As an independent candidate, (Turk) will take votes from me.”
The fissure in Jackson County GOP politics is similar to what’s playing out among Republicans around the country. And in the Missouri Senate, where one senator can derail legislation with a filibuster, the ramifications of Democrats picking up a seat in a Republican-dominated district could be big.
“He’s running a rogue independent campaign that will split the 55 percent Republican vote in that district and allow the Democrat to win,” said Mark Anthony Jones, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Committee. “It’s very simple. Math is math. Any way you cut it, you end up with a conservative loss.”
Turk dismisses the label of spoiler, saying he has built a network of supporters during his six runs for Congress that will help him win on Election Day.
“Why be afraid of elections?” he said in a recent interview with The Star. “Go out and campaign. Let Hillary campaign. Let Mike campaign.”
He added: “People should pick their representatives, instead of representatives picking their people. So, let’s go out, have a great campaign and see who wins in the end.”
His six runs for Congress may not have resulted in victory, but they did allow him to campaign across the region, raising his name ID. Turk racked up more than 123,000 votes in last year’s congressional campaign.
“Over a 12-year period, people have gotten to know who I am, and tens of thousands have had the opportunity to talk to me,” Turk said.
Over the last 40 years, Republicans have held the eastern Jackson County senate seat every year but one: Democrat Margaret Rennau won a special election in 1993 but then lost re-election to a Republican the following year.
Jones sees things playing out in a similar fashion this year because whoever wins will face re-election in November 2018.
“I suspect Hillary will win this,” he said, “and it will be short lived.”
But he worries that if the race turns ugly between Turk and Cierpiot, the hard feelings could spill into the next campaign.
“I don’t think it’s right to disparage individuals personally, and I won’t tolerate that,” Jones said. “We will support Mike Cierpiot, but we will not allow it to get down and dirty. We won’t be mean to each other.”
But the chances the campaign could devolve into Republican-on-Republican attacks are high.
For his part, Cierpiot says he thinks Turk got on the ballot with the help of Democrats hoping to make mischief in the race. He noted Turk’s attorney in the lawsuit challenging his place on the ballot was Brianna Lennon, a Columbia Democrat. He called Turk a “a career political candidate,” and questioned whether he’s truly conservative.
“His conservative credentials are in question,” Cierpoit said. “He’s doing this just for personal ambition. He’s putting issues I care deeply about, and most thought he cared about, in danger by running. That calls into question whether he’s conservative or pro-life, because he may help elect a Democrat that doesn’t reflect those values.”
Turk said he was referred to Lennon by a friend, and she took his case because they both “felt very strongly that far too often leadership of political parties want to exclude voters from having too much of a voice in the process. That was our common interest. So the fact that she was a Democrat didn’t bother me.”
As for Cierpiot’s attacks on this conservative bona fides, Turk said he’s not surprised.
“Mike’s trying to cast fear and doubt as to who I really am,” he said. “When things don’t go the way politicians want them to go, they often get self-righteously angry and use fear as a tactic to drive people who support them to take action.”
Jones said the reality is Cierpiot and Turk differ very little on the issues.
“One has gray hair. One has blonde,” he said. “That’s the biggest difference between the two. They are one and the same ideologically. The people who are going to vote will now face the choice between two conservatives and a liberal. And guess who wins?”