Government & Politics

After weeks of tumult, who is the true face of the Missouri GOP?

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner had a palpable presence at the Missouri Republican Party’s convention in Kansas City this weekend without ever setting foot inside the hotel.

The state party’s annual Lincoln Days convention coincided with a report from Politico that Wagner, a St. Louis area Republican, may be reconsidering her decision to forgo the race for U.S. Senate.

Her potential entry to the race could severely complicate Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s path to the nomination, which until this week appeared to be such a sure bet that President Donald Trump promised nearly a year before the 2018 election to campaign on his behalf.

Wagner’s July announcement that she would not seek to unseat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the incumbent Democrat, came on the heels of a very public effort by former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth and other prominent Republicans to recruit Hawley, the state’s 38-year-old attorney general, to the race.

“There are a number of candidates already in the race. More will be looking at it and some will be getting out,” Hawley’s spokeswoman Kelli Ford said about Wagner’s potential entry to the race. “Josh remains focused on Claire.” 

Austin Petersen, a Kansas City Republican also seeking the nomination, said that he’d welcome Wagner’s entry into the race.

“I think it shows that Josh Hawley is not really as loved by a lot of Republicans as they expected,” Petersen said as he ate a bowl of ice cream at the Westin at Crown Center during the party’s convention on Saturday.

“I think that she had felt like she was pushed aside a bit by the establishment and when Hawley’s fundraising came out and it was rather lackluster I think that it probably signaled to her that there might be room for her,” Petersen said. “I don’t know if she’ll actually get it, but just the rumor is a big blow to Hawley’s candidacy.”

McCaskill holds a nearly $8 million cash advantage on Hawley as of the start of this year and outraised him by a ratio of 3-to-1 during the final three months of 2017.

John Hancock, a friend of Wagner's and a former chairman of the Missouri GOP, told The Star that Republican leaders have approached Wagner about running for Senate in recent weeks. But he said it's more accurate to say people are approaching her about getting into the race than to say she's actually considering it.

Hancock said he doesn't see her challenging Hawley in a primary.

Among candidates already in the race, Hawley remains the clear favorite with the support of 49 percent of likely GOP primary voters, according to a poll released by Remington Research Group and Missouri Scout Saturday.

The poll of 1,095 likely GOP primary voters found that all other candidates were polling in the single digits, while 40 percent of voters remain undecided.

The report of a possible senatorial bid by Wagner also came after Hawley faced a storm of criticism after The Star published remarks in which he linked sex trafficking to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Shortly after the Politico report was published Friday, Wagner began posting on Twitter about human trafficking, the same subject that caused Hawley to be engulfed in controversy.

She did not directly comment on the attorney general’s remarks, but she did call it “imperative Congress understands the severity” of human trafficking.

Missouri State Treasurer Eric Schmitt, another Republican who eyed the race before endorsing Hawley, said that he remains convinced that Hawley is the best option to defeat McCaskill in the fall.

“Ann’s a friend, but I think the most important thing here is to focus on finally retiring Claire McCaskill,” he said.

A sign advertising Wagner’s congressional campaign hung in the halls of the Westin alongside advertisements for Hawley’s Senate campaign and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who has spent the last several weeks resisting calls for his resignation in the wake of blackmail allegations.

The congresswoman did not attend the event and her campaign spokesman dismissed the speculation of a possible Senatorial bid.

“The Congresswoman is focused on her important and pressing work in the U.S. House and Missouri’s Second Congressional District,” said Brecht Mulvihill, Wagner's campaign manager.

Hawley had also disappeared from the convention by Saturday afternoon.

He hosted a breakfast event with U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt in the morning, but canceled his scheduled appearance at a panel of statewide elected officials that afternoon and left for Columbia without plans to return for that evening’s dinner and keynote address.

He was the only state-level Republican officer absent from the afternoon panel, which included Greitens, Schmitt, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Lt. Gov. Mike Parson.

The party and his campaign said that Hawley had to attend to a family function, but offered no more specific details.

“Josh enjoyed hosting a hospitality reception last night, which had great attendance, speaking at a packed breakfast with Senator Blunt this morning, and speaking with reporters after the breakfast,” Ford said in an email. “All events were open press. He enjoyed spending time with Republican leaders from across the state, but left Kansas City shortly after his press gaggle to return home.”

Greitens would not comment on Hawley’s decision to skip the afternoon event or on any other matter.

The Missouri governor had largely been seen a presidential prospect for future elections until last month allegations surfaced that he had taken a nude photograph of a woman while she was blindfolded with her hands bound in an effort to keep her from talking about an affair.

Greitens has admitted the affair, but denied the blackmail allegations. He now faces a criminal investigation in St. Louis and calls to step down from lawmakers in both parties.

Missouri GOP chair Todd Graves said that the governor remains a rock star in the Republican Party despite the last few weeks of controversy.

Graves confirmed that the party had reached out to Vice President Mike Pence to serve as the convention’s keynote speaker, but that Pence was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict.

Political analyst Scott Rasmussen was selected as the keynote speaker instead.

“Every year you try to get the president or vice president, but he (Pence) was never supposed to be coming,” Graves said. “We’ll try again next year.”

The Star’s Lindsay Wise and Jason Hancock contributed to this report.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3