How ugly has the Republican primary for attorney general gotten?
Kurt Schaefer has been accused of being a corrupt faux conservative who sold out Missouri farmers to Chinese communists.
Josh Hawley has been accused of being a fraudulent puppet of East Coast special interests who has done legal work on behalf of terrorists.
Unsurprisingly, both men deny the charges and say their opponent is engaging in gutter politics.
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Schaefer, a two-term state senator from Columbia, faces off with Hawley, a law professor at the University of Missouri, in the Aug. 2 primary.
The winner will take on either former Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley or St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, who are running in the much quieter and far less expensive Democratic primary.
Two Columbia Republicans
Schaefer worked in the attorney general’s office of Democrat Jay Nixon for four years in the mid-1990s before going into private practice. He joined the Department of Natural Resources as general counsel and deputy director in 2005, and was first elected to the state senate in 2008 as a Republican. He quickly became chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which wields considerable influence over the state budget.
“The attorney general’s office is no place for on-the-job training,” he said in an interview with The Star. “If you’re going to be Missouri’s chief law enforcement officer, there is a minimum requirement of qualifications, and being a Missouri prosecutor is one of them.”
Hawley attended Rockhurst High School in Kansas City before going on to study at Yale Law School, where he graduated in 2006. He eventually clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts at the U.S. Supreme Court before joining Roberts’ old law firm as an appellate attorney. He moved back to Missouri to teach law at Mizzou in 2011. In that time, he’s also served as senior counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
“The attorney general’s job is to stand up for the constitution of the state of Missouri and the laws of the state of Missouri,” Hawley said. “It’s a constitutional lawyer’s job.”
It didn’t take long for the Schaefer-Hawley campaign to turn nasty.
Schaefer was highly critical of the University of Missouri’s decision to grant Hawley leave in order to run for office. He voiced those concerns to university leaders, a situation that spawned an ethics complaint against Schaefer alleging he used his authority over the state budget to pressure the university to keep Hawley out of the race.
Schaefer vehemently denies he did anything unethical, and his supporters have since sued the university in order to obtain Hawley’s emails that they believe show him doing campaign work while still getting paid by taxpayers.
The battle escalated when the two campaigns started running ads.
Schaefer, whose campaign is largely funded by GOP megadonor Rex Sinquefield, launched a pair of ads accusing Hawley of providing legal counsel to terrorists. The most recent slams Hawley for writing a legal brief making the case that the United States shouldn’t designate the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran as a terrorist organization.
Hawley defended his work, noting that among those advocating for the Mojahedin were Missouri Republicans like former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, current U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Hawley’s campaign ran a TV ad using old footage of Schaefer calling himself a moderate and making the claim that he is not a true conservative. Hawley notes that when Schaefer ran for state senate, he won the endorsements of Democratic-leaning unions like the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association.
It’s an accusation that has dogged Schaefer for years, and one he vehemently rejects.
“I have all kinds of groups that support me for one reason or another. You’d have to ask them why they supported me over someone else,” Schaefer said. “But my record speaks for itself.”
Hawley is also being aided by millions of dollars’ worth of ads run by out-of-state groups. The origin of the money may never be known, as most of the groups don’t have to disclose their donors.
The ads range from attacks on Schaefer’s conservative credentials to a TV spot portraying Chinese businessmen praising Schaefer for supporting legislation allowing foreign companies to buy Missouri farmland.
The ad was criticized as xenophobic by Asian-American groups.
“Why is so much out-of-state money pouring in to our attorney general race?” Schaefer asked.
Hawley says the race comes down to a contest between “a true conservative and someone who was a moderate until they decided to run for attorney general.”
Schaefer says Hawley may turn out just like his former boss Chief Justice Roberts, who Schaefer says sold himself as a conservative then betrayed conservatism once on the Supreme Court.
“Do I think Josh Hawley has the potential to betray conservatives just like that?” Schaefer said. “Absolutely, I do.”
In contrast to their GOP counterparts, the Democrats have been relatively quiet in the run-up to their primary.
Zimmerman served a year as an assistant attorney general before joining the administration of then-Gov. Bob Holden. He served three terms in the Missouri House before being elected St. Louis County assessor in 2011.
“Missouri needs an attorney general who is committed to fairness and committed to working for the people,” he said. “Too many people believe our state government and elected officials are bought and paid for. An opportunity to clean up that culture of corruption once and for all is very exciting.”
Hensley was Cass County’s prosecutor from 2005 until 2014. She said Zimmerman doesn’t have the experience needed to be Missouri’s attorney general, noting that she obtained convictions in all of her 21 murder cases and prosecuted hundreds of cases involving child abuse and sexual assault.
“The next attorney general has to be someone with experience as a prosecutor,” she said. “The cases the office handles are too important to try to learn on the job.”
Hensley’s campaign was given a late boost when she won the endorsements of Kansas City Mayor Sly James and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. But Zimmerman raised far more money, bringing in $1.4 million in donations during the campaign compared to $550,000 for Hensley.