O'FALLON, Mo. — Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe on Monday became the second statewide Republican to announce he won't seek the Senate seat Roy Blunt will vacate, and some political observers said it looks like Republicans are hoping to unify behind a single candidate.
One factor likely on their minds: The potential candidacy of former Gov. Eric Greitens, who is unpopular with much of the state's GOP establishment but who maintains a core of support that could be just enough to win a multi-candidate primary.
Blunt, a former Missouri secretary of state and longtime member of the U.S. House before winning two terms in the Senate, announced on March 8 that he wouldn't run again. The short list of favorites to replace him in heavily Republican Missouri included Kehoe and two other statewide GOP officeholders — Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
But Ashcroft announced shortly after Blunt's decision that he would not pursue the Senate bid. Kehoe, 59, followed suit with a written statement Monday saying he was “honored by the encouragement” for a Senate run, but instead plans to run for governor in 2024.
Schmitt has said only that he is considering entering the race, but has made no formal announcements.
“My sense is that the Republican Party has probably sent a clear message to all potential candidates for Blunt’s seat that they want to consolidate their efforts behind one candidate, and a candidate that will be successful," Webster University political scientist Bill Hall said.
Greitens has said he is exploring a Senate run, and he remains the wild card in the potential GOP field. The former Navy SEAL officer was once seen as a rising star in Republican politics, possibly even a future presidential candidate.
Those aspirations seemed to vanish in 2018 when a extramarital affair three years earlier was exposed. A felony charge accused him of taking a compromising photo of the woman as potential blackmail if she spoke of their encounters.
Greitens then faced a second criminal charge for allegedly using a donor list from his charity for his political campaign. Legislative committees also investigated him.
Greitens, who is now divorced but was married at the time, admitted to the affair but denied wrongdoing in both cases. Still, he resigned in June 2018 and the criminal cases were dismissed.
St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren said that despite the scandals, polling has shown Greitens with fierce support among about one-third of Missouri Republicans. That support might be enough for a primary win if several establishment candidates siphon votes from each other.
“Republicans want to win back the Senate, and to do so, they must hold Blunt’s Republican seat,” Warren said in an email. “Greitens would be a very risky candidate for the Republicans because he certainly could lose, even in the red state of MO.”
Longtime Republican operative John Hancock believes it’s too early to say the field is narrowing to just Schmitt and Greitens. He noted that most of Missouri’s six Republican members of Congress are considering a run, and they're all veteran fundraisers.
"These are folks that potentially will have adequate funding to mount a serious race,” Hancock said.
At least three Democrats have announced Senate bids: former state Sen. Scott Sifton, activist Timothy Shepard and Marine veteran Lucas Kunce. Two better-known Democrats — former Sen. Claire McCaskill and 2016 Senate candidate Jason Kander — have said they won’t run in 2022.