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Opinion: Where US Senate candidates’ focus should be

  

Even though each of the current Republican candidates for Senate has a similar argument for why they should represent Missouri — they’re against the left, they’re a fighter, they’re supporters of former President Donald Trump — they also each have a way of showing they’re different from the others. Eric Greitens is such a fighter that he’s got enemies on all sides. Eric Schmitt has been elected statewide and never had to resign in disgrace. Mark McCloskey is a true outsider, having never run for office. Vicky Hartzler is probably the most unique: She’s the only female, the only one not from St. Louis, the only one who knows Washington, D.C.

Conner Kerrigan

We’ve got four candidates with four different campaigns all vying for the same spot. Now that their campaign accounts are open and their websites are live, there is one question these candidates and their consultants need to be asking themselves: Who are we talking to, and how do we reach them?

Target audiences

There are only two audiences that matter until Aug. 2, 2022: Republican primary voters in Missouri, and Republican donors anywhere in the country. Every move they make, every word they say, every single thing they do has to be targeted at one of these audiences. 

This is a delicate tightrope to walk. Of course, every candidate needs money to run their campaign, but at the end of the day, the only people who can cast their vote live within the borders of this state, and many of them aren’t paying close attention to state politics like, say, someone reading a column from a former communications director in The Missouri Times. 

Lincoln Days presented itself as a great test of each campaign’s intended audience. If you’re a Republican and you’re reading this column, there’s a good chance you were there in Kansas City this past weekend, and you know exactly which candidate was not there. 

Picking your battles

Some may scoff at Greitens’ decision to forgo the most important gathering of Republicans in the state, but I think it was actually the only logical choice for his campaign. Think about it — we know how the establishment would have received a man who almost tore the party apart from the inside three years ago. We also know what those same Fox News viewers that are so instrumental to a primary campaign are paying attention to. More than likely, they’re more aware that there’s an election audit going on in Arizona or a “crisis at the border” than they are that Lincoln Days happened.

I’m not saying the candidates can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Many of them are doing a great job of it. But I am saying that Greitens, with all of the burned bridges surrounding him, had to choose, and he probably made the right choice. It wasn’t too long ago that an aggressive candidate with a questionable past ran a grassroots campaign that shocked the establishment and took over the Republican Party.

Make that money

As I said, though, you need money to run a campaign, and your funders can be split into two — big-ticket donors and grassroots organizers. When you start looking at the folks who can write five-figure checks, establishment Republicans like Schmitt and Hartzler have the upper hand. They’ve been around, know how to backslap, and are more palatable to reasonable people. But when it comes to the grassroots, earned media and effective social media campaigns are always going to be the biggest driver in bringing in those small-dollar donations. Although Greitens is a seasoned veteran of making noise in the media, McCloskey is learning quickly how to get the attention he needs. It’s shown in the numbers. Greitens had a dismal first FEC report, raising less than $20,000, with more than half of that coming from his own personal finances. McCloskey, on the other hand, raised almost a quarter-million dollars 24 hours after his announcement, with the average donation coming in at $36.98. Talk about grassroots.

Looking ahead

With Lincoln Days in the rearview, I’ve got my eye on a few things going forward.

One: Which candidates know that Twitter isn’t real life? It’s so easy to get sucked into Twitter battles with politicos and think their opinions represent those of the whole. After all, everyone we know in the politics industry is on the platform. But when you zoom out, you realize that, nationwide, less than half of all 18-29-year-olds use Twitter, and that number gets lower and lower the older you go. Seven percent of Americans 65 and up are tweeting. How many of those other 93 percent do you think vote in Republican primaries? I’m going to guess a hefty chunk. Consultants are better served to steer clear of the discourse.

Two: How are they distinguishing themselves going forward? Schmitt is currently doing the best job of this. Every other day, there’s a headline about his newest lawsuit against the Biden administration, and then a week later, the fact that the suits keep getting dismissed barely gets mentioned outside of Democratic circles. McCloskey is doing a hell of a job, too, but I fear the “pink polo guy with an automatic rifle” schtick might play out before the primary is over. What’s his play going forward?

Three: Who, if anyone, gets the Trump endorsement in the primary? Everyone has their own reason to believe they could get the golden crown. McCloskey campaigned with the former president in 2020. Greitens has Kimberly Guilfoyle on his team. Hartzler has been a Trump supporter from the get-go. Schmitt has the best chance of receiving Senator Josh Hawley’s support which could influence Trump’s thinking. But don’t forget, Congressman Jason Smith may enter the race, and he’s currently running a campaign to an audience of one, and it may pay off. If I were him, I’d rather stay in the House and become the Budget chair, but that’s just me. If Donny gives anyone the nod, it’s game over.

Four: Do Democrats mount a serious contender? The likely answer is no, and that matters when it comes to national money. If there isn’t really a competition, you can bet that national donors on either side aren’t going to be spending crazy amounts in the state. Outside of some cataclysmic realignment of the planets, Missouri is likely to remain a Republican stronghold for years to come. Why waste money on the inevitable?

No matter what happens, the next year and a half in Missouri promises to be interesting.