Two of the six Democratic U.S. Senate pick-ups in the Show-Me State have occurred during GOP-friendly cycles

With four and one-half months before the primary, all signs still point to former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens being right in the mix (if not the frontrunner) in the competitive fight for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in the open seat race.

A record 18 Missouri GOPers filed for the race in a state where many party leaders fear defeat may be clutched from the jaws of victory if the former governor (who resigned in scandal in 2018) wins the August 2nd primary.

New Trafalgar Group polling shows Greiten’s main challengers – Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. Representative Vicky Hartzler – are poised to easily defeat both Democratic frontrunners (former state Senator Scott Sifton and national security expert Lucas Kunce).

However, Greitens remains in a statistical tie with each of them in a state that has become increasingly red in recent years.

During a midterm election cycle in which Republicans would seem to have a distinct edge (with Democratic standard bearer Joe Biden languishing with fairly poor approval ratings), the prospect of losing what should be a safe U.S. Senate seat might bring to mind other questionable GOP nominations over the last decade such as Missouri’s own Todd Akin in 2012 (losing to incumbent Claire McCaskill) or Richard Murdock of Indiana in 2012 (losing to Joe Donnelly).

However, those GOP losses came during a fairly Democratic-friendly election cycle in which Democrats made modest gains in each legislative chamber.

A loss of Missouri’s U.S. Senate seat during the 2022 midterms, however, would be more akin to the loss of Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat during 2017’s special election, in which controversial Roy Moore was defeated by Democrat Doug Jones.

During the direct election era, Missouri Democrats have managed to pick off Republican-held seats six times.

Four of those came during cycles against one-term incumbents while Democrats gained ground in congressional elections nationally:

In 1926, three-term U.S. Representative Harry Hawes defeated appointed U.S. Senator George Williams by 4.2 points in a special election (and simultaneously by 3.6 points in the general). Meanwhile, Democrats netted seven U.S. Senate seats and 11 seats in the U.S. House.

In 1934, Jackson County Court Judge Harry Truman easily unseated Senator Roscoe Patterson by 19.8 points as Democrats notched a net gain of nine seats in each chamber.

In 2000, Governor Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash three weeks prior to the election, but still defeated incumbent John Ashcroft, with Carnahan’s widow, Jean, subsequently appointed to the seat. Democrats netted four senate seats that cycle and one in the U.S. House.

In 2006, Auditor Claire McCaskill eked out a 2.3-point win against Senator Jim Talent while Democrats netted six U.S. Senate seats and 31 in the U.S. House.

Of course, the national electoral landscape does not appear to be as sunny for Democrats in 2022, and certainly not in Missouri.

However, there have been two cycles – many decades ago – during which Missouri Democrats picked off GOP-held U.S. Senate seats (also against first-term incumbents) while the party flailed nationally.

In 1950, former three-term U.S. Representative Thomas Hennings defeated Forrest Donnell by 7.3 points despite the GOP netting five U.S. Senate seats and 28 in the U.S. House.

In 1952, former U.S. Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington unseated James Kem by 8.1 points while the GOP netted a modest two seats in the chamber plus 22 in the U.S. House.

With nearly 20 candidates slated to appear on the GOP U.S. Senate primary ballot this cycle, a relatively low but loyal group of Greitens supporters could be enough to put him over the edge.

The lowest percentage with which a major party nominee has won a U.S. Senate primary in Missouri to date is the 31.4 percent received by U.S. Attorney Roscoe Patterson in 1928, edging former U.S. Representative Nathan Frank in a six-candidate field.

Five other candidates have been nominated with less than 40 percent of the vote: Democratic Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long in 1920 (37.4 percent), Republican Kansas City lawyer R.R. Brewster in 1922 (33.4 percent), Democratic Lieutenant Governor Thomas Eagleton in 1968 (36.7 percent), Democratic St. Louis City Council member Geri Rothman-Serot in 1992 (35.6 percent), and six-term Republican U.S. Representative Todd Akin in 2012 (36.1 percent).

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  1. John Chessant on March 18, 2022 at 12:04 am

    The senator defeated for reelection by Stuart Symington was named James Kem, not Kern. A very apt case of “kerning”!

    • Dr. Eric Ostermeier on March 21, 2022 at 8:46 am

      There is more than a kernel of truth to your comment! Also, not to be confused with John Kern, U.S. Senator from Indiana!

  2. John Chessant on March 18, 2022 at 12:37 am

    Also similar to a potential Greitens nomination is Kris Kobach’s 2018 run for governor in neighboring Kansas. Kobach defeated incumbent governor Jeff Colyer by just 350 votes (0.11%) in the Republican primary and then lost the general election to Laura Kelly by the comparatively large margin of 5% [Sam Brownback was reelected in 2014 by a closer margin]. Apparently, Republican senators were sufficiently worried about Kobach’s 2020 Senate run that they tried to recruit then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo into the race, but Pompeo declined and Kobach lost the primary to Roger Marshall.

    However, Kobach lost in 2018 in a blue wave year; it is conceivable that he might have won in a national environment that favored Republicans. [Kobach is running for attorney-general of Kansas in 2022.] And as for the weak Republican candidates who ran in the GOP wave year of 2010 who come to mind: Sharron Angle ran against the incumbent Senate majority leader and longtime institution in the state who thus had no trouble fundraising, while Christine O’Donnell ran in a solidly blue state, albeit one that might well have elected moderate GOP Rep. (and former governor) Mike Castle instead had he not been upset by O’Donnell in the primary. So, it will be interesting to see how Greitens, if he is nominated, will fare as a controversial GOP candidate in a red state in a presumably lean-Republican year.

    • Flickertail-Pembina on March 18, 2022 at 9:49 am

      2010: Ken Buck – now representing arguably the most Republican-leaning House seat in CO – fared better than either O’Donnell or Angle in his own Senate bid but still proved to be a “questionable” statewide contender in that banner year.

      My surmise is that the Republicans will hold the seat, even with Greitens as the nominee; the Democrats arguably missed their chance in 2016, when one-term R incumbent Roy Blunt clung to the long coattails of both the presidential and gubernatorial nominees of his party to eke out a second term (five elected first-term R occupants had been beaten, most notably in 1952, when the control of the chamber changed, even with a “modest two-seat” net gain).

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