Rep. Cori Bush sailed to a comfortable reelection Tuesday night, sending a message that St. Louis Democrats are happy with their nonconformist representative. Her victory marks a win for progressive incumbents in an election year that has seen them embattled by outside spending and little supported — if not outright opposed — by the party establishment. But progressives faltered statewide: In the open race for retiring Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt’s seat, populist-styled Lucas Kunce lost the primary to Trudy Busch Valentine, an heir to the Anheuser-Busch fortune.
“They don’t like the fact that we don’t accept any corporate money. They don’t like that I speak the way that I speak because I came from this community and I sound like my community. They don’t love the fact that, instead of being what they call dignified, I show up as a protestor, that I’ve been on the frontlines forever,” Bush told the crowd at her election-night speech. “But our work isn’t based on what they like. Our work is based on what folks need.”
A former nurse and activist, Bush gained prominence locally as the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets in 2014, after Ferguson police shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Since her election to Congress in 2020, Bush has pursued a confrontational style of politics that has rallied activists but has often put her at odds with party leadership, becoming one of the only congressional Democrats willing to say “defund the police,” and bucking party leadership in a row over decoupling an infrastructure bill from a wider progressive agenda.
Bush riled St. Louis’s old guard two years ago by unseating longtime Rep. William Lacy Clay, the scion of a political family. This year, in her first primary challenge as an incumbent, that old guard came gunning for Bush in the form of state senator and minority caucus whip Steven Roberts Jr.
Roberts was fond of saying that St. Louis voters had “buyer’s remorse” over Bush, including in remarks to Fox News on Monday. St. Louis Democrats, who broke for Bush by a margin of more than 2-to-1, appeared to disagree.
Himself the son of an influential St. Louis businessman and former alderman, Roberts was the face of a campaign that leaned on a pair of outside groups with eyebrow-raising ties — including one linked to his campaign treasurer and business parter, and another funded by Clay and a company linked to Roberts’s father. Despite the influx of outside spending, Bush carried an overall financial advantage. While she raised and spent well over $1 million to secure her reelection, Roberts raised less than half a million, including a $135,000 loan from himself.
Roberts faced scrutiny over public accusations of sexual assault by two women. Both women reported their accusations to the police, but Roberts has denied both allegations, settled lawsuits with both women, and was never charged. In the weeks before Roberts launched his congressional campaign, someone using an IP address on the grounds of the Missouri state Capitol repeatedly removed information about both allegations from his Wikipedia page.
If Bush’s primary was about securing the gains progressives have made in recent election cycles, Kunce’s campaign represented a progressive movement on offense. But his efforts fell short Tuesday night, as Busch Valentine claimed 43 percent of the vote to Kunce’s 38 with 90 percent of ballots counted.
A Marine veteran and former policy wonk at the American Economic Liberties Project, a D.C.-based anti-monopoly advocacy organization, Kunce centered his pitch on his ability to regain ground with disaffected working-class voters that the Missouri Democratic establishment is rapidly losing. By embracing calls for universal health care and swearing off corporate PAC money, he tried to recreate a populist progressive model that has fueled the surprisingly resilient careers of Midwestern senators like Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
His opponent was in many ways the perfect foil. An heir to Anheuser-Busch fortune, Busch Valentine came under fire for her past participation in the “Veiled Prophet Ball,” a white supremacist ritual that had for years been protested by advocates for racial equality.
Throughout the race, Busch Valentine’s knowledge of the issues and commitment to Democratic priorities were called into question. She botched an interview with Missouri’s largest newspaper — which endorsed Kunce — and, in a widely shared video, stumbled when asked about her thoughts on the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, which she had earlier campaigned on overturning.
Though Kunce outraised her at first, Busch Valentine relied on her personal wealth for an influx of funding as the race neared its end, finishing with almost $5.9 million — $5.3 million of which she gave to her own campaign. Kunce raised just under $5 million.
In November, Busch Valentine will face Michigan Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who on Tuesday won the Republican primary, a race characterized by the leading candidates’ pursuit of “Make America Great Again” credibility.
Schmitt’s victory is a repudiation of Missouri’s Republican former Gov. Eric Greitens, who was seen as the frontrunner for the nomination in June but floundered in the final weeks of the race as the value of his MAGA credentials appeared insufficient to protect him from his unseemly reputation.
While Schmitt campaigned on his defense of the former president as Missouri’s top prosecutor — citing lawsuits he backed that aimed to force the reinstatement of Trump-era immigration and climate policies — Greitens had long seized on the belief that he was Donald Trump’s unspoken choice.
The former president called the disgraced former governor — who resigned in 2018 amid a variety of criminal investigations, including one for sexual misconduct — “tough and smart” last month, and Trump’s future daughter-in-law, Kimberly Guilfoyle, served as a national co-chair for Greitens’s campaign. Schmitt’s campaign, meanwhile, benefited from support among the Missouri Republican establishment, which sponsored a slate of GOP-backed ads highlighting Greitens’s past scandals in the final weeks of the race.
Schmitt also focused more of his messaging on his fierce opposition to abortion rights — which appears to have worked among a constituency celebrating the death of Roe v. Wade. His office joined an amicus brief in the case that eventually overturned the abortion rights established in Roe. (In neighboring Kansas, which also held elections Tuesday, voters rejected an amendment that would have allowed state lawmakers to further restrict abortion rights, which are currently protected by the Kansas Constitution.)
In a sign of Trump’s central role in the Missouri GOP primary, the former president dealt a death blow to the candidacy of a one-time frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, by endorsing against her last month, though he did not say who his choice would be. In a bizarre move on Monday, Trump made his final endorsement in the race: “ERIC” — last name not specified.
“I trust the Great People of Missouri, on this one, to make up their own minds, much as they did when they gave me landslide victories in the 2016 and 2020 Elections,” Trump said in a press release, “and I am therefore proud to announce that ERIC has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”
In a fitting conclusion to a contest marked by groveling to the former president, both candidates rushed to lay claim to Trump’s ambiguous endorsement in the final hours of the race.
Correction: August 3, 2022, 3:43 p.m. ET
This story previously misstated Trudy Busch Valentine’s total campaign funds and has been updated to reflect her final fundraising total.