Government & Politics

Missouri GOP gubernatorial hopefuls differ little on policy, but sparks still fly at debate

Missouri Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens was the target of some attacks during Thursday’s debate with rivals in Columbia.
Missouri Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens was the target of some attacks during Thursday’s debate with rivals in Columbia. The Associated Press

Policy disagreements were few and far between Thursday night as the four candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Missouri governor faced off in the first real debate of the campaign season.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t fireworks, as the candidates briefly traded barbs over a scandal-plagued donor, strip club rumors and party loyalty.

Businessman John Brunner, former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder laid out similar platforms of policy solutions that they say set them apart from the likely Democratic nominee, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster.

All four said they’d immediately sign a right-to-work law, and each voiced support for reducing income taxes. All four called for trimming regulations on businesses and opposed raising taxes to pump more money into Missouri’s roads and bridges.

And all four pointed to unrest in Ferguson in 2014 and on the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus last year as examples of failed Democratic leadership.

The fireworks didn’t begin until Hanaway noted the lack of policy differences between the candidates during a question on the minimum wage.

She used the question to pivot to an attack on Greitens for not returning $1 million in donations he received from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Michael Goguen, who was recently accused of holding a woman as a sex slave for 13 years.

A woman last week in California filed a suit against Goguen, saying he sexually abused her for more than a decade, agreed to pay her $40 million in response and then only gave her $10 million.

Goguen denied the allegations in court records, but a political action committee supporting Republican presidential hopeful John Kasich gave the donations it received from him to nonprofit groups working to end human trafficking.

Hanaway said Greitens should follow suit.

“If he doesn’t return the money, it raises serious questions about Mr. Greitens’ judgment and whom he surrounds himself with,” Hanaway said.

Greitens said he won’t convict someone in the court of public opinion, then slammed Hanaway as someone “you just can’t trust” because of a vote against the concealed carry of firearms when she served in the Missouri House.

These attacks “are what happens when desperate politicians get very desperate,” Greitens said.

Kinder piled on later, saying Greitens should “do the honorable thing” and return the money.

“I don’t believe you’ll be able to maintain your position of hanging on to his $1 million donations,” Kinder said, adding that the money is “tainted” and “stained.”

Greitens hit back by saying Kinder is “the last person on this stage who should be trafficking in tabloid stories about men hanging out in strip clubs.”

That’s a reference to a series of stories in 2011 about Kinder frequenting strip clubs in the early 1990s. The stories and resulting uproar caused Kinder to abandon his run for governor that year.

However, Kinder noted that after the stories broke and were used in campaign ads against him, he was still re-elected in 2012 to a third term as lieutenant governor.

He then angrily labeled Greitens a lifelong Democrat who didn’t become a Republican until deciding to run for governor last year. Even the debate moderator noted that Greitens attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention with former Democratic Gov. Bob Holden.

Greitens was recruited to run as a Democrat for Congress in 2010, but he says he’s always been a conservative even if he identified with the Democratic Party.

Brunner, who has previously been Greitens’ most vocal critic, largely stayed out of scrum Thursday night. Besides a couple subtle jabs at Greitens’ party loyalty and conservative credentials in his opening statement, Brunner focused on his biography as a business owner and first-time political candidate, saying he provides the best contrast to take on Koster, “a career politician.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock