PEVELY, Mo. – As the U.S. Senate primary campaign nears its end in Missouri, all three leading Republican candidates are making it clear that if elected, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell won't have their support.
Twenty-one Republicans are on the ballot Tuesday, with former Gov. Eric Greitens, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler believed to be the leading contenders. Eleven Democrats are competing.
The Missouri candidates are among conservative Senate hopefuls who have fallen in line behind former President Donald Trump, who has attacked McConnell and advocated for new Senate leadership if Republicans win back the chamber in November. Trump remains popular in Missouri but has not endorsed anyone in the primary.
Greitens, who resigned amid scandal in 2018, has said throughout the campaign that he wants McConnell ousted.
Schmitt, speaking Wednesday in Columbia, said McConnell hasn't endorsed him, “and I don’t endorse him for leadership," KOMU-TV reported.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler was more effusive.
“I'm not going to support him,” Hartzler told The Associated Press during a campaign stop Thursday in Pevely. “We need true conservatives who are going to fight for our values and stop this train wreck, stop President Biden, stop (Senate Majority Leader Chuck) Schumer, stop (Speaker of the House Nancy) Pelosi and save our country."
One possible replacement she mentioned: Josh Hawley, who raised a fist to salute protesters ahead of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, and was the first Republican senator to announce he would object to certification of the 2020 election. Hawley has endorsed Hartzler, who was among 147 House Republicans who voted against certification.
The candidates are spending the final days making their closing arguments in a race in which many voters are still undecided. Among them is Dione Parrish, 53, who plans to vote in the GOP primary and attended Schmitt's rally in Columbia.
“In the past, especially with Republicans, we’ve been betrayed many times,” Parrish said. “They say the right things and know the language, and then they betray us. So I’m really looking, trying to look deeper and harder so that doesn’t happen.”
Schmitt painted himself as a fighter for the people, nodding to his penchant for lawsuits, including over mask mandates. President Joe Biden’s administration has been a frequent target.
“My job as your attorney general is pretty simple: I get up in the morning, I go to work, I sue Joe Biden and I go home,” Schmitt said to applause. “I wake up the next day, and I do it all over again.”
Hartzler is focusing on social issues, including her opposition to abortion.
Greitens, the usually brash former Navy SEAL officer who drew condemnation in June for a campaign video showing him brandishing a shotgun and declaring that he’s hunting RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only, is taking a softer approach down the stretch.
One campaign email focused on his accomplishments during his year-and-a-half as governor, citing job growth, reduced taxes and tougher laws for those who attack police. The campaign also released a video montage featuring black-and-white photos with the message, "This movement in Missouri is fueled by love, not hate.”
On the Democratic side, the campaign's final days included an eyebrow-raising comment from one of the top contenders.
Trudy Busch Valentine, a retired nurse and heiress to the Busch beer family fortune, was asked about transgender youths during a meeting with local Democrats in St. Louis.
“I only would say, wait until 18, when a person is an adult, to do everything that wouldn’t allow going back to being, maybe, the sex that you were,” Valentine responded, according to video posted on Twitter. “But otherwise I totally, totally support transgenders without a doubt.”
Her leading opponent, Marine veteran Lucas Kunce, called Valentine’s comments “callous and dangerous.”
“These are Republican talking points,” Kunce told The Associated Press. “This is going after the most vulnerable people in our society, the ones who need protection the most.”
Valentine said in a statement to the AP that she believes “transgender children should be able to access gender-affirming care in line with the recommendations of medical experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics.” The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association support allowing kids to seek transgender medical treatment, but they don’t offer age-specific guidance.
Kunce is spending the waning days of the campaign reminding voters of his roots in a working-class family.
“If you want someone who wants to fundamentally change who has power in this country, I’m your guy,” he said. "I think it’s time Missourians have someone who knows what it’s like to grow up like they do and live like they do.”
Valentine's campaign said she is hearing from people about their financial hardships and their concerns about abortion access. The campaign said Valentine is offering “commonsense solutions to these issues and running a campaign that’s rooted in her values of honesty, integrity, and compassion.”
Missouri was long considered a swing state but has moved decidedly to the right over the past decade. The Republican winner will be favored in November, though GOP leaders worry that a Greitens win in the primary could open the door for a Democratic upset.
Greitens' first term was derailed by a sex scandal and two criminal charges — one for allegedly taking a compromising photo of the woman, and one alleging a campaign finance law violation. Both charges were dropped, but under the risk of the charges being refiled, and facing possible impeachment, he resigned in June 2018. He and his wife divorced in 2020.
In a March affidavit in a child custody dispute, Sheena Greitens accused her ex-husband of abuse and wrote that he demonstrated such “unstable and coercive behavior” as his political career appeared to be collapsing in 2018 that steps were taken to limit his access to firearms.
Greitens denies the allegations.
AP reporter Summer Ballentine in Columbia, Mo., contributed to this report.