As America in many ways stepped back from the cliff of right-wing extremism in 2022, Missouri continued lurching right over it. The same Nov. 8 election that saw democracy-threatening acolytes of former President Donald Trump defeated in other states saw Missouri embrace them — including the election of a new U.S. senator whose anti-science pandemic demagoguery was astonishing even by Republican standards. At the same time, state voters purged the last vestiges of the once-competitive Democratic Party from any statewide office.
On abortion, Missouri responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade by immediately implementing an abortion ban as draconian as any in the country. On guns, continued mass shootings around the nation (and one at a St. Louis school) did nothing to halt the Legislature’s determination to eviscerate any remaining semblance of sanity in the state’s gun laws. On fiscal matters, lawmakers and Republican Gov. Mike Parson muscled through a major income tax cut despite Missouri’s continuing failure to adequately fund basic governmental services like education and mental health.
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Missouri politics was dominated for most of the year by the race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Roy Blunt. State Attorney General Eric Schmitt continued the strategy he’d started in 2021 to line himself up as the GOP’s culture-war candidate, with stunts like suing school districts over their pandemic policies and curriculum and using extremist, divisive rhetoric that cast medical experts and school boards as the enemies, vilified the free press and demonized Democrats.
This hard-right horror show wasn’t a natural fit for Schmitt, formerly known as a reasonable Republican state legislator. It was clear that the Republican base in the state didn’t consider him to be a full-fledged member of the MAGA movement, despite his increasingly brazen abuses of his office to show how extreme he was. But Schmitt benefitted from the weakness of his opposition, both in the primary and the general election.
In the primary, his opponents included disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens, attempting to come back from the political dead with a Trumpier-than-thou campaign that the hard right loved but that panicked the mainstream party nationally. Trump, calculating that either Schmitt or Greitens would likely win the GOP nomination and not wanting to back the loser, got too cute by half by announcing he was endorsing … “Eric.” (Both Erics immediately demonstrated their mutual duplicity by publicly claiming to have won Trump’s endorsement.)
Schmitt won the nomination on Aug. 2, effectively guaranteeing Missouri would send another Republican to Washington. The state’s Democrats helped seal that fate by nominating to the seat not Lucas Kunce, a sharp, knowledgeable Marine veteran who might at least have given Schmitt a real contest, but Busch brewery heiress Trudy Busch Valentine, whose massive fortune and clear lack of depth on policy made her an easy target for Schmitt to lampoon. He won on Nov. 8 with 55% of the vote, 13 points ahead of Valentine.
In January, Schmitt will join the Senate and fellow Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley — who made national news in 2022 (and became a national joke) with the release of Capitol security footage that showed him sprinting through the building in terror from the Jan. 6, 2021, mob attack he’d helped foment.
In November, a judge ruled that when Hawley was state attorney general, his office committed a “knowing and purposeful violation of the Sunshine law” in order to stymie a political opponent. Schmitt, in that same office now, abused the Sunshine Law this year to harass journalists and academics who have criticized him.
This is Missouri’s new Senate dream-team.
The same election that sent Schmitt to the Senate flipped the last statewide seat in Missouri that had been held by a Democrat. Incumbent State Auditor Nicole Galloway had chosen not to seek reelection. Republican Scott Fitzpatrick ran for the office with a campaign which — taking a page from Schmitt’s culture-war schtick — vowed to expand the office’s strictly fiscal duties to “audit” school curriculum in search of that elusive right-wing bogeyman: critical race theory. Fitzpatrick’s defeat of Democrat Alan Green for the post completes the transformation of this former swing state into one the reddest in the nation.
In late June, as the campaigns were in full swing, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the half-century-old ruling that had established abortion as a constitutional right. The decision freed states to impose any restrictions they wanted on the procedure. The Missouri Legislature had already passed a near-total ban that would go into effect upon the end of Roe. Schmitt, as the state’s top legal officer, certified the new law literally within minutes of the announcement of the court’s decision, then crowed on Twitter that Missouri was the first state to institute a full ban.
What Schmitt celebrated was a ban on any abortion from the moment of conception, even for rape or incest victims. The sole exception is for medical emergencies. Missouri’s women had, overnight, become second-class citizens.
While Missouri’s leaders were busily erasing a core right for women, they were also ensuring that the rights of unstable people to get their hands on guns wouldn’t be impeded. After chipping away at gun restrictions for years, the state had one of the highest gun death rates in America in 2022 — yet when Congress moved to pass a relatively mild reform that merely offered states money to implement “red flag” laws to keep guns from the mentally ill, Missouri lawmakers threatened Blunt, the outgoing Republican senior senator, if he helped pass it. Blunt, to his credit, ignored them and helped guide the legislation into law. Missouri, of course, steadfastly rejected the offered incentives by refusing to pass a red-flag law.
That ideological obstinancy may well have cost lives in the Oct. 24 school shooting at the Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis. The shooter killed student Alexzandria Bell, 15, and teacher Jean Kuczka, 61, before police killed him. In the aftermath, it became clear that Missouri’s fanatically loose gun laws had been his accomplice.
The shooter was 19, an age at which Illinois and other states bar people from owning the kind of AR-15-style weapon he used; Missouri doesn’t. The shooter was initially blocked from obtaining that weapon by a background check from a federally licensed gun dealer he went to — so he went to a private dealer who, under Missouri law, wasn’t required to run such a check. The shooter’s family called police less than two weeks before the shooting to warn that his mental state made it dangerous for him to be armed, but the lack of a red-flag law here prevented them from getting a court order to disarm him. Even getting the gun to the school was made relatively easy by the fact that Missouri doesn’t require permits to carry guns in most public places.
As we editorialized, if a state intentionally designed its laws to make it as easy as possible for dangerous people to lay their hands on deadly firearms, that would look pretty much like Missouri’s laws today.
As the year wound down, there were precious few indications that the state’s careening descent into right-wing madness would cease in 2023.
Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, an early frontrunner for governor in two years, demonstrated his eagerness to get on board his party’s crazy train by proposing that public libraries clear their book-selection policies with his office or face loss of state funds. Soon-to-be-Senator Schmitt has vowed to “take a wrecking ball” to the Justice Department for its fully legal and justified retrieval of pilfered classified documents from Trump. The state GOP’s legislative supermajority, after watching voters in other red states move to restore abortion rights by referendum, is scrambling to block that from happening in Missouri by raising the bar for approval of statewide ballot initiatives. That cliff just keeps getting steeper.