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Republican Vicky Hartzler battles headwinds of Trump snub in Missouri's Senate race

JoJo Blackwood stands among several of her seedlings and saplings, native plants she’s nurturing at the Kansas City Indian Center. “It's connecting people to the environment they have around them because it's opening their eyes to this area that they live in," she said.
Carlos Moreno
JoJo Blackwood stands among several of her seedlings and saplings, native plants she’s nurturing at the Kansas City Indian Center. “It's connecting people to the environment they have around them because it's opening their eyes to this area that they live in," she said.

This story is part of a series of profiles on leading candidates for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate race, from the Missouri Independent.

Everyone hoping to be the GOP nominee to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt has scrambled to win the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.

Vicky Hartzler wasn’t immune.

But while six-term congresswoman from Harrisonville courted the former president, it was never as intense as some of her rivals. And while she stood dutifully by him by voting against certifyingthe results of the 2020 presidential election, she also criticized him for his “unpresidential remarks” during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Then earlier this month, just weeks before voters cast their ballot, Trump publicly snubbed her, dealing a blow to her candidacy in a state where Trump won twice by double digits.

Trump gave no hint of his plans when they spoke a few hours before the announcement, Hartzler told The Independent after speaking to a gathering of Republicans in Salem.

“Yeah, so (I) gave an update on the race, told him that we were leading…well, I don’t want to get into details, but the conversation was a very positive conversation,” she said. “So I was, you know, kind of surprised.”

Yet despite losing out on Trump’s endorsement, Hartzler remains undeterred and convinced she will win.

“I just believe in the power of the people,” Hartzler told Peter Mundo on KCMO radio. “I believe that Missourians want to make their own decisions on who they will vote for and who they will decide.

The polls disagree on who is ahead in the 21-candidate Republican primary for the nomination to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt. The most recent Trafalgar Group poll, from late June, gives Hartzler 24%, a 0.5-point edge over former Gov. Eric Greitens and a 1.2-point lead over Attorney General Eric Schmitt. An Emerson College poll for The Hill in early June gave Greitens the lead and one from Remington Research, in early May, put Schmitt ahead.

Other candidates registering in polls, U.S. Rep. Billy Long, St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey and state Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz are splitting10% to 15% in most surveys.

What that leaves is a sizable undecided slice of Republican voters – in some recent surveys as much as 25%.

The unknown factor in how that group will move is Trump.

While many political observers — and Trump himself — expect his endorsement would seal the nomination for the anointed, the impact of the anti-endorsement is less certain.

“That is not going to make my decision one way or another,” said Jill Dean as she waited for Hartzler to speak in Salem.

An actual endorsement may sway her, Dean said, noting her Trump loyalty by adding that she was in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021

“I have been MAGA and Trump all the way,” Dean said. “He was what our country needed.”

Hartzler, in a flurry of interviews on talk radio, sought to minimize the impact of Trump’s rejection. She said the only endorsement that matters comes from voters while emphasizing her reliability as a Trump supporter.

She had, she told Mundo, “voted alongside him more than any other Senate candidate, actually, in the country.”

She also spoke to many supporters after Trump’s statement, Hartzler said.

“I visited with a lot of people today and most of them are kind of incredulous,” she said. “And most of them are even more energized to support me and to help and they said we’re going to redouble our efforts and you know, we’re gonna see this happen.”

Successful politician

 U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler announces in June 2021 at Frontier Justice in Lee’s Summitt that she is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
Rudi Keller
Missouri Independent
U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler announces in June 2021 at Frontier Justice in Lee’s Summitt that she is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

To the Republican voters in Salem, Hartzler started her story at the beginning, followed by a bit of humor at her own expense.

“I’m just a farm girl from Archie, Missouri,” she said.

Her parents raised crops and livestock, and one summer her father offered her 15 cents for every sparrow she shot to scare them away from the crops. She called it her “second job.”

“And I want you to know by the end of that summer, I earned 45 cents,” Hartzler said, laughing.

She may not, as a youngster, have been a very good shot. But as a politician she has always hit the mark.

She won a Missouri House seat in 1994, winning in a Cass County district that had previously been held by a Democrat.

In 2004, she was the spokeswoman for the Coalition to Protect Marriage in Missouri, which backed a state constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriages. It was in effect until the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide.

And anyone doubting Hartzler’s political skill need only look to her 2010 campaign against veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton in the 4th Congressional District. She won a nine-way primary and then defeated 17-term Democratic incumbent by 5 percentage points.

The target that year, which swept the GOP back into Congressional majorities, wasn’t really Skelton, she said.

“My race was just as much to get rid of Nancy Pelosi as speaker as it was to defeat Ike Skelton,” Hartzler said in an interview with The Independent.

Hartzler, 61, was born in Harrisonville and received a degree in education from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1983 and became a teacher. She received a master’s degree in education in 1992 from Central Missouri State University.

She and her husband, Lowell Hartzler, own farms and Heartland Tractor, a farm equipment business. The farms and the business entity that operates them are valued at more than $3 million on Hartzler’s 2020 disclosure report, and the equipment business is valued at $1 million to $5 million. In 2020, those assets generated between $1.1 million and $5.2 million in income.

“I know what it’s like to be a small business owner and how difficult it is, but also how to create jobs,” Hartzler

In making her bid for the Senate, Hartzler is giving up a secure House seat. She won re-election five times, never with less than 60% of the vote.

With five opponents running full-fledged campaigns, Hartzler has extra work to become known statewide, said Terry Smith, political science professor at Columbia College.

“Harzlter and Long have structural disadvantages because it is hard for a congressman to compete statewide against someone with statewide name recognition, especially Greitens and Schmitt,” Smith said.

To get name recognition, Hartzler has to make news. She found a way to do that on filing day in February, when she said she would not support Greitens if he won the nomination.

“It is not conservative to tie a woman up in your basement and assault her,” Hartzler said of Greitens, who resigned as governor in 2018 while under indictment.

She also got a boost from the endorsement of Sen. Josh Hawley, both from immediate news articles and access to his fundraising network.

“Vicky is someone who I’m confident has the integrity, the character and the toughness to do this job,” Hawley said.

LGBTQ issues

 U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler speaks at a Republican gathering July 11 in Salem as she campaigns for the GOP Senate nomination.
Rudi Keller
Missouri Independent
U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler speaks at a Republican gathering July 11 in Salem as she campaigns for the GOP Senate nomination.

For most of her career, Hartzler has run her campaigns from the standard Republican playbook – decrying federal deficits and regulations, supporting tough immigration policies and pushing for military spending.

But politicians also decide what issues mean the most to them, personally, and for Hartzler it has been opposition to expanded acceptance for LGBTQ individuals in cultural, social, legal and political arenas.

In 2017, Hartzler tried to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military. And in 2021, during debate on legislation to expand federal anti-discrimination protections to sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, Hartzler called it “the inequality act” and warned that families were being undermined.

“Parents who dare to oppose doctors performing life changing surgeries or using hormone altering drugs on their children will be considered abusive and neglectful,” Hartzler said.

In her first five terms in Congress, Hartzler never voted in agreement with theHuman Rights Campaign, a leading advocacy group for LGBTQ issues. In February, her campaign Twitter account was suspended for violating rules against hateful conduct for stating “women’s sports are for women, not men pretending to be women,” the message of an ad she had produced.

Her views, she said, are based in her faith.

“While I’ve been in office this issue continues to move forward,” Hartzler said. “There are some people that just are afraid, I guess, to speak up, and as a Christian, I think it’s important to be a compassionate leader but yet still stand for the truth according to God’s word.”

In late May, Politico published a feature on Hartzler’s nephew, Andrew Hartzler, who joined a class-action lawsuit challenging exemptions that allow religious colleges and universities to discriminate against gay students.

Hartzler said she had read the article but declined to go further.

“I’m not going to comment on family matters,” she said.

Whether Hartzler’s views on LGBTQ issues will be an asset or a liability on Aug. 2 is uncertain. A Gallup poll taken in June 2021 reported that, for the first time since the firm started polling the question, a majority of Republicans support same-sex marriage.

And she can’t bank on support from past allies on those issues. Conservative activist Bev Ehlen, who was the volunteer coordinator for the 2004 anti-same sex marriage campaign led by Hartzler, is backing Schmitt.

“I believe Schmitt is stronger and understands the times and the need to do the brave thing,” Ehlen said. “I know Vicky has been speaking a lot more freedom, liberty-minded as she runs for U.S. Senate. But she has tended to go along with the leadership in the House and we need someone who will stand up to leadership when leadership is wrong.”

Assets and liabilities

 U.S.Rep. Vicky Hartler, right, listens to Kerry Collins of Salem after speaking to a Republican gathering July 11 during her campaign for the GOP Senate nomination.
Rudi Keller
Missouri Independent
U.S.Rep. Vicky Hartler, right, listens to Kerry Collins of Salem after speaking to a Republican gathering July 11 during her campaign for the GOP Senate nomination.

More clearly helpful to Hartzler is the recent endorsement by the Missouri Farm Bureau, the first time the organization has taken sides in a primary. It followed other endorsements by farm groups representing major commodity and livestock producers.

Hartzler already had extensive ties to the organization, chairing the Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee with her husband and serving as president of the Cass County Farm Bureau.

But she was also the only candidate who showed up to speak with the trustees, said spokesman Eric Bohl. The organization’s rules for endorsement require candidates to appear in person to answer questions, he noted.

Hartzler began with an edge, Bohl admitted, because she is so well-known within the organization.

“A lot of people who are our county presidents are her county coordinators,” Bohl said.

The Farm Bureau changed its rules in 2016 to allow primary endorsements because Republicans have a commanding position in statewide elections, Bohl said.

“If you are going to have somebody representing us for 20 or 30 years, you want to make sure your voice is heard,” he said. “If the primary is where the election is, that is where they ought to be talking to people.”

One factor, difficult to measure, could help offset name-recognition advantages – Hartzler is the only woman in the field.

In 1992 and 2018, women won statewide primaries despite being outspent by multiple male opponents. In that 2018 race, Saundra McDowell was outspent 14-to-1 by the second place candidate in the GOP primary for state auditor.

Hartzler, however, doesn’t see a natural advantage in her position.

“Among most Republican women, we look more for the qualifications and experience to base our votes on,” Hartzler said. “And I’ve always hoped that people would vote for me because I am the most qualified, I’m the most experienced and the hardest worker and the one who shares their values.”

When Hartzler kicked off her campaign in June 2021, she did it at Frontier Justice, a firearms, accessory and apparel dealer in Lee’s Summit. Tom Mendenhall, a supporter from Columbia, attended and is sticking with his choice a year later, he said.

“She’s a straight shooter,” Mendenhall said. “You know where she stands and she is not run by somebody.”

And Mike Brown, co-owner of Frontier Justice, said he’s sticking with Hartzler. She’s firm without being brutal or abusive, he said.

“My customer base honestly is concerned with the breakdown of society,” Brown said. “They are very concerned with the polarity and the nastiness that is occurring on both sides of the aisle and it scares them.”

She’s got the same sense about this year’s campaign as she had when she was campaigning against Skelton, Hartzler said in an interview with The Independent.

“I actually felt like I was going to win months before the election,” Hartzler said, adding that she had a “sense of peace” about the outcome.

“This is another pivotal moment to step up into the fight for the people of Missouri and I feel the same peace that this will work out and we’ll be able to, to in a different way, continue to fight for the things that we hold dear,” Hartzler said.

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Rudi Keller