GOP candidate Schmitt a no-show at Senate debate in Missouri

LAKE OZARK, Mo. (AP) — Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Trudy Busch Valentine called for compassion for immigrants, criticized the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and pressed the need to address climate change during a candidate forum before a gathering of journalists on Friday — one notable for the absence of the race's clear frontrunner.

Valentine, a Democrat, spoke in Lake Ozark at the forum sponsored by the Missouri Press Association. She was joined by Constitution Party candidate Paul Venable and Libertarian Jonathan Dine, but not Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

Valentine, 65, is a philanthropist and a retired nurse. She's also the daughter of August “Gussie” Busch Jr., the longtime chairman and CEO of Anheuser-Busch who built the family business into the world's largest brewery. Gussie Busch died in 1989 and the brewery was sold to InBev in 2008.

Schmitt has, in news releases, referred to Valentine as “the heiress" and made digs at her family's wealth. Valentine didn't back away from it Friday.

“I grew up in a family that lived the American dream, and I am so grateful to my parents for so many reasons, but especially because they taught me that to whom much is given, much is expected," Valentine said. "And that’s what my life has been about.”

Valentine was a late entry into the Democratic primary but narrowly defeated Marine veteran Lucas Kunce last month. Her overriding message is a pledge to push aside partisanship and bring decency to the office.

At Friday's forum, Valentine criticized politicians who have “kicked this can down the road” on finding a solution to immigration issues. She noted that her family farm runs on solar energy and called climate change “one of the greatest threats facing our country and our world.” And she said the Supreme Court’s abortion decision was “based on politics, not the law of the land and what had been precedent for 50 years.”

A question about the abortion issue caused a stumble. Valentine seemed uncertain when asked if she supported a federal bill creating a right to abortion, first saying she did, then later saying, “I don't support any kind of legislation except the turning over of Roe. v. Wade.” It was apparently a slip of the tongue by Valentine, an abortion rights supporter.

Valentine also appeared confused over a question about a pending Supreme Court case over whether state courts, when finding violations of the state constitutions, can order changes to federal elections and the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts.

Asked her opinion on the issue, Valentine instead seemed to address voting access.

“I think we need rules that are the same all over America regarding our ability to vote,” she said. “And I think that has to be a fair vote, and everyone that is eligible needs to vote.”

Schmitt, Missouri's 47-year-old attorney general, is the first major party candidate for U.S. Senate or governor to decline to participate in the press association's candidate forums in two decades.

In September 2000, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, skipped the MPA’s U.S. Senate candidate forum in St. Louis. The forum went ahead as planned with Republican candidate John Ashcroft and two others.

With Election Day a month-and-a-half away, many candidates for leading offices — often Republicans — are abandoning the time-honored tradition of debating. For some, it reduces the chance of an embarrassing moment. Others are simply snubbing a media ecosystem they find elitist and cast themselves in the mold of former President Donald Trump, who made a show of missing some primary debates during the 2016 campaign.

Schmitt's campaign did not directly address why he skipped the MPA debate, but said he agreed to a debate next month that would air statewide on TV stations owned by Nexstar Media Group, but Valentine has not.

“Missourians deserve a televised, statewide, prime-time debate with the two major candidates on the same stage,” Rich Chrismer, a spokesperson for Schmitt, said in a statement.

Recent history suggests Schmitt's failure to appear at the MPA forum won't matter much.

Missouri, once a swing state, has moved decidedly Republican over the past two decades. Auditor Nicole Galloway is the only Democrat elected for statewide office.

Schmitt's win in the August primary eased the fears of party leaders who worried that a primary victory by former Gov. Eric Greitens could have opened the door for a Democratic win in November. Greitens was seeking a political comeback after resigning as governor amid a sex scandal and campaign finance investigations in 2018, just a year-and-a-half into his first term.

As it turned out, Schmitt won easily. Greitens was a distant third.

Schmitt got another break last month when independent candidate John Wood dropped out. Wood is a former U.S. attorney and a Republican. He had significant financial backing from retired Sen. John Danforth, who was critical of the vitriol among the GOP candidates, including Schmitt.

Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt announced last year that he would not seek a third term.

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AP reporter David A. Lieb in Lake Ozark contributed to this report.