Bullish Democrats split over best choice to upset Missouri Senate
With the Aug. 2 primary just days away, Greitens remains among the top contenders on the Republican side, along with Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. Representative Vicky Hartzler. Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, fear Greitens, who was ousted from office just a year and a half into his term amid whirlwind investigations, will cost them a safe seat in a reliable red state at a time when they try to regain control of the Senate.
On the Democratic side, the state party and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee declined to endorse any candidate. Meanwhile, local Democratic Party leaders who support Kunce or Valentine say eligibility is a major factor – but they are split on who is the stronger candidate.
In suburban St. Louis, the Jefferson County Democratic Central Committee has endorsed Valentine, believing the soft-spoken retired nurse offers the best chance of winning in November.
Committee Chairman Bob Butler is both intrigued and worried that Valentine will face off with Greitens.
“He would be the easiest to face, but at the same time, he’s dangerous enough that if he wins, he’s your US senator, and that’s really scary,” Butler said.
Andy Leighton, chairman of the Cape Girardeau County Democratic Committee and Missouri House candidate, is supporting Kunce. Kunce made his pitch to Leighton and his committee more than a year ago and has often followed through. The Valentine’s Day campaign, Leighton said, never contacted him.
“He’s been out and about. To my knowledge, no other candidate has visited so many places. He took time and created an organization,” Leighton said.
Republican U.S. Senator Roy Blunt announced in March 2021 that he would not seek a third term. Twenty-one Republicans and 11 Democrats are competing in next week’s primaries. Beyond Kunce and Valentine, only St. Louis County business owner Spencer Toder topped six figures in donations.
The presence of John Wood, a Republican running as an independent with millions of dollars in support from a political action committee headed by former Republican Sen. John Danforth, adds a wild card to the November race. His presence could split the GOP vote in the general election.
Greitens garnered by far the most attention in the race. The 48-year-old former Navy SEAL officer was a rising Republican star after winning the 2016 gubernatorial race, but his political fortunes soon took a dive.
In early 2018, he admitted to having an extramarital affair with his hairdresser in 2015 and was charged with a primary school invasion charge accusing him of taking a compromising photo of her to use as blackmail.
Soon after, a Missouri House committee began investigating his campaign finances, and Greitens was charged with a second crime related to that investigation. Both charges were eventually dropped. Under the risk that the charges would be refiled and likely to be indicted, Greitens resigned in June 2018.
He and his wife have since divorced. In a March affidavit in a custody dispute, Sheena Greitens accused him of abusing her and one of their children. Eric Greitens called the accusations “false” and a “political stunt”.
Kunce, like Greitens, is a veteran. The 39-year-old lawyer served 13 years in the Marines, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He grew up in a working-class family in Jefferson City and remembered his family struggling to make ends meet after his sister was born with heart disease.
“We went bankrupt, and we did it because people in that neighborhood brought food home, they passed the plate to my mom’s prayer group,” Kunce said.
Valentine, 65, is a longtime philanthropist but has never stood for election. She is the daughter of August “Gussie” Busch Jr., longtime chairman and CEO of Anheuser-Busch, which made the St. Louis brewery the largest brewery in the world. The brewery was sold to InBev in 2008, but the Busch family remains prominent in St. Louis.
Valentine said she decided to enter the race after witnessing “the division in our country and the vitriol in our politics”.
For more than a century, Missouri has been a reliable presidential swing state. But since 2008, the state has backed the Republican presidential candidate, including overwhelming support for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.
Auditor Nicole Galloway is currently the only Democrat to hold statewide office, although five of the eight statewide elected were Democrats a decade ago.
The fracture is deep. Missouri’s two urban centers — Kansas City and St. Louis — are majority Democrats. The suburbs are divided. Most of the rest of the state is beet red Republican.
Valentine said Democrats lost ground in rural Missouri because they “stopped listening” to people. She insists on the need for better access to the basics – broadband access, health care, jobs.
Kunce, like Senate candidate John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, is a populist who hopes to win back rural voters. He wants to ban stock ownership for members of Congress, break up corporate monopolies and end foreign ownership of farmland. He said the government should spend money to rebuild the heart of the country, not to build foreign countries.
Both leading Democrats encountered roadblocks. Some Democrats question whether Kunce is too conservative, noting that he opposed abortion rights when he ran for a state House seat in 2006. He said that he had changed his mind after serving in the military in the Middle East, “seeing what it was like to live in a big brother government where women had no rights.
Valentine was forced to apologize in March after it was reported that as a college age she attended a debutante ball hosted by an organization that then banned blacks and Jews.
Democrats know the winner of the primary will face an uphill battle in November. But they are hopeful, especially if Greitens is the Republican nominee.
“He’s got a lot of baggage – a lot of baggage,” Butler said. “More than what you typically see in a candidate. I think he would put off a lot of Republicans.