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Missouri Republicans offered a last-minute proposal Wednesday that would force U.S. Senate candidates into runoffs to win their primary election, reflecting fears that former Gov. Eric Greitens could prevail next year against a divided GOP field.
The remarkable proposal, sponsored by Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Springs Republican, came seemingly out of nowhere late Wednesday night with two days left in the legislative session.
It would require primaries to be held in June of the election year instead of August; if there is no majority vote-getter the top two would advance to an August runoff to determine the party nomination. It would apply to all statewide offices, and the Congressional and U.S. Senate seats, and only apply through 2024.
It is still one step short of passing the state Senate with little time to make it through both chambers and get to the governor’s desk.
The measure received little discussion or explanation, but Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, said he believed it was proposed because Republicans are “scared to death Eric Greitens is going to win a primary.”
Greitens, who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Roy Blunt, alienated many lawmakers in his own party as governor before resigning in 2018 amid multiple scandals, including allegations of sexual blackmail and violence.
Also in the race to be the Republican nominee is Attorney General Eric Schmitt. Several others are considering jumping in.
“It’s the reality” that Greitens is still popular among some Republican voters, Rizzo said, and if multiple candidates split the vote he could secure the nomination. Democrats on Wednesday night expressed concerns about the costs of creating a new election cycle that would likely get low turnout. A new statewide election would cost about $7 million.
“I’d say Eric Greitens is probably going to win,” he said, “which is why we’re here talking about a primary runoff which would create a whole other election cycle. We are changing the way we do elections in the state of Missouri for one person.”
‘Not about any one candidate’
Greitens’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Star, but his campaign manager told the Missouri Independent the proposal was “a sad, desperate attempt by the swampy establishment to try to subvert the democratic process.”
““Gov. Eric Greitens is dominating this race and everyone knows it,” campaign manager Dylan Johnson told The Independent. “He’s going to win and there’s nothing that politicians in Jeff City can do to change that.”
On Thursday morning, Eigel said in an interview the proposal “is not about any one candidate” and was crafted to last for two elections so lawmakers could evaluate how well it worked.
“There’s a tendency to speculate just that but I gotta tell you that the primary that would occur in a U.S. Senate race over a year from now, that’s a long way away,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is ensure that if you want to make it to the general election, you have to have the direct support of a majority of your primary voters.”
On the Senate floor, Rizzo questioned the GOP’s messaging.
“If the Republican Party is in a position where they are having to change laws because they’re unable to convince their voters that a guy is unfit for office, then they should probably take a deep look at what they’re selling to their voters,” Rizzo said Wednesday night, before acknowledging the failure of Democrats in most Missouri statewide races recently.
Eigel brought the proposal as an addition to a bill passed by House Republicans that would prohibit judges from rewriting any ballot measure language that is passed by the legislature. Last year, a Cole County judge rewrote the General Assembly-backed ballot measure undoing parts of the anti-gerrymandering law voters passed in 2018 known as Clean Missouri. The repeal passed.
He also is proposing banning donations to elections officials and requiring the use of hand-marked paper ballots.
Earlier Wednesday, Republican members of the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee sent Gov. Mike Parson a letter calling for a special session to handle elections-related bills. They accused the Senate of holding up a number of bills the House has passed such as re-instituting the state’s voter photo ID law after it was struck down in court last year, and raising the threshold for passing citizen-proposed ballot initiatives.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who has pushed for many of the measures, said he supports a special session.
The letter did not mention the ballot measure language bill, which Eigel said was the elections bill he expected would be debated that day.
Republican Senators made a brief attempt to pass the voter ID law as well. Sen. Dan Hegeman, a Cosby Republican, tried to attach the ID provision and a measure to allow for no-excuse absentee voting after the option was used widely during the pandemic last year.
But Sen. Bob Onder, a Lake St. Louis Republican, tried to amend that to get rid of the no-excuse absentee voting section, saying he preferred for all voters to cast their ballots in person on Election Day.
“If anything our six weeks of absentee voting right now is too long,” he said.
Both proposals prompted Democrats to immediately being filibustering, and Hegeman withdrew the voter ID provision altogether.