Seconds into a web ad supporting Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's U.S. Senate bid, footage of former President Donald Trump alleging a stolen election is juxtaposed with headlines touting Schmitt's role in lawsuits challenging the 2020 results.
A largely discredited audit of the presidential election in Arizona has become a key piece of Eric Greitens' Senate campaign, with the former governor traveling across the country to witness it and celebrating the endorsement of a legislator who is one of its biggest cheerleaders.
U.S. Reps. Billy Long and Vicky Hartzler — both seeking the GOP Senate nod — joined most Republicans in Congress in January to vote against certifying Biden's electoral college win.
And three days after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to stop that certification vote, Senate hopeful Mark McCloskey tweeted, “there is no question that the election was the result of massive fraud, there is no question that Donald Trump won the legitimate vote…"
The “Big Lie" is alive and well in Missouri politics.
Allegiance to Trump's discredited allegation of a stolen election has become a litmus test for Republican candidates around the country. In Missouri, which overwhelmingly voted for Trump twice, the lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud has done little to dissuade fidelity to that lie.
That dynamic has manifested itself in myriad ways, from election officials forced to fend off wild conspiracies at legislative hearings to Congressional candidates refusing to say whether Biden won legitimately.
But nowhere is it more evident than the GOP primary for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, where the idea of a Trump endorsement is largely seen as a golden ticket for whomever gets it.
“In order to win over the GOP base that will be voting in the primary, and to hopefully snag Trump's endorsement along the way, candidates need to at least appear to believe Trump's version of reality," said Joshua Holzer, assistant professor of political science at Westminster College in Fulton.
Perpetuating the “Big Lie" may have short-term value for GOP candidates, said Luke Campbell, assistant professor of political science at Northwest Missouri State University. In the long term, however, it further undermines voter confidence in democratic institutions.
“It certainly does have the effect of doing damage to our electoral processes in the future," Campbell said.
Of all the candidates running or pondering a run for Missouri's open Senate seat, none have embraced the “Big Lie" quite like Greitens.
On Jan. 6, Trump supporters, incited by the idea that the 2020 election was stolen, stormed the U.S. Capitol determined to stop the certification of Biden's electoral college victory.
The next day, Greitens went on right-wing television to peddle election fraud conspiracies and advance the idea that the violence was actually perpetrated by Antifa.
His enthusiasm for the “Big Lie" continued in the subsequent months, culminating in June when he ducked out of attending the year's biggest gathering of Missouri Republicans to travel 1,200 miles away to witness Arizona's election audit.
Democratic and Republican critics alike — including the GOP-run county board of supervisors and the Republican who is the chief county election officer — dismiss the effort as a dangerous exploitation of grievances that fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Recently, Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers visited Missouri to endorse Greitens and tout his support for the audit.
“When I'm talking to conservatives and I'm talking to patriots, the first question I get asked is, 'does my vote matter,'" Greitens said during a TV appearance earlier this month. “They want to know there are patriots who are fighting to get to the truth of what happened on Nov. 3, 2020."
Schmitt was among a handful of GOP attorneys general who waged an unsuccessful legal fight to overturn results in battleground states won by Biden. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected their efforts.
He later drew criticism for his role as vice chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) when it was revealed it was involved in a robocall encouraging “patriots" to participate in the Jan. 6 march that ended in the violent attack on the Capitol
Schmitt denied knowledge of the robocall or that the Rule of Law Defense Fund, the 501(c)(4) arm of RAGA, helped finance and organize the march. The group also held a special “war games" meeting weeks before the election to discuss its strategies if Trump lost.
“…we will march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal," the robocall said. “We are hoping patriots like you will join us to continue to fight to protect the integrity of our elections."
Emails between the Rule of Law Defense Fund and one of Schmitt's top aides, Solicitor General John Sauer, were revealed in February through open records requests filed by attorneys Elad Gross and Mark Pedroli.
Unlike Greitens, Schmitt doesn't openly peddle conspiracies of a stolen election, Instead, his rhetoric is typically framed around the idea of election integrity.
But a super PAC supporting Schmitt, called Save Missouri Values, ran a web ad featuring Schmitt declaring he'll defend election integrity sandwiched between footage of Trump claiming “this election was rigged" and television coverage of the lawsuit seeking to overturn the outcome of the presidential election in Pennsylvania.
A CNN poll released last week found that 63% of all respondents correctly believed Biden legitimately won in 2020. Only 21% of Republican respondents believed that, compared to 97% of Democrats and 64% of independents.
Candidates see political gain in peddling debunked conspiracy theories, Holzer said, demonstrating how Missouri politics has become “increasingly defined by division."
“The 'Big Lie' runs the risk of further polarizing our electoral process," Holzer said, “as radical viewpoints become more entrenched and normalized."
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