Missouri attorney general race emerges as new front in GOP civil war

Missouri attorney general race emerges as new front in GOP civil war
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(JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.) — The GOP civil war has reached a new beachhead: blood-red Missouri.

The state’s Republican attorney general primary is pitting incumbent Andrew Bailey against Will Scharf, a lawyer for Donald Trump. And while intraparty battles elsewhere in states such as Texas and Idaho have ostensibly focused on issues like school choice and vaccine mandates, the Aug. 6 primary in Missouri is centered largely around allegiance to the former president and who counts as a member of the oft-maligned “establishment.”

Bailey, who was appointed to his position in 2022 and has never had to defend himself at the ballot box, has used his office to toss red meat to the base, filing lawsuits on issues such as transgender athletes and immigration and demanding the Justice Department provide documents and communications regarding investigations into Trump.

Scharf, meanwhile, is promoting his ties to Trump just as the former president stands trial in New York while casting Bailey as an insider of Jefferson City — a capital city with a Republican governor and GOP supermajorities in both state legislative chambers.

“I think this is going to be a lot of those factors here as far as a microcosm on establishment versus outsider, Trump versus traditional Republican,” said one unaffiliated Missouri GOP strategist. “This is definitely going to be a race that’s going to show how poignant one side or the other is and if anyone is able to fend off a funded Trump candidate without a lot of baggage at this point, in Scharf’s case.”

“I don’t think you’re gonna see a lot of policy differences between the two,” added the operative, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke anonymously to discuss the race. “I think it’s just, is being affiliated with Trump more important, ultimately, than anything Bailey could have even done as AG?”

To break through, both campaigns are seeking Trump’s endorsement. A source familiar with the race confirmed to ABC News that Scharf and the former president have discussed the primary, and Mike Hafner, a Bailey campaign consultant, said that the attorney general’s camp and Trump’s team have talked about the race.

Yet it’s unclear if Trump plans on getting involved in the race, leaving the candidates to fight it out among themselves. And with such little ideological daylight between Bailey and Scharf, the race is largely revolving around who is Trumpier and more of a fighter — with early signs of an ugly race brewing.

A super PAC supporting Scharf, who is backed by well-heeled outside groups such as the Club for Growth and the Concord Fund, went up with an early ad saying that “Trump relies on Will Scharf as one of his lawyers to defend him from legal persecution and election interference” and that Scharf is “taking on the entire legal and media establishment.”

Bailey has fired his own shots, dubbing Scharf “Wall Street Willy,” noting his affluent, East Coast upbringing and ties to wealthy outside benefactors through his PAC.

Although Bailey is technically the incumbent, operatives compared the primary to one for an open seat given that neither candidate has appeared on a general election ballot before, and both contenders are anticipated to hold nothing back to cast themselves as the right choice for primary voters just getting up to speed on the race.

“Both candidates have shown a willingness to attack, and I think this is going to be a no-holds-barred race,” a second Missouri GOP strategist said. “Whenever [you’ve] got an open seat, it’s important to define yourself, but it’s also important to find your opponent. And I think both of the candidates are going to try to do that to the best of their abilities.”

Observers speculated that Scharf has the upper hand in a more national knife fight given his legal representation of the GOP leader at a time when polls show Republican voters believe Trump is being treated unfairly by the legal system — a message that can be blitzed across the airwaves by millions in outside spending.

“If you’re a Missouri Republican, or I’d say, Republican voter in general, they believe that Trump, a lot of these various cases and charges are a stretch or reach,” said a third Missouri GOP strategist. “And Will Scharf’s ability to say, ‘I’m a Trump lawyer,’ the primary voters will say he is at the tip of the spear fighting and defending liberty.”

“… It will resonate, and it will be probably all Will Scharf needs to say,” the strategist added.

Some Scharf allies insisted the race has less to do with Trump and more to do with frustration with what voters view as broader inaction in Jefferson City on issues near and dear to the GOP faithful — warranted or not.

“Conservatives … want a proactive, activist, conservative attorney general who is going to take the fight to the left. And there’s a belief and a perception, and I believe it to be true, that that’s not Bailey, but that very much is Will, someone who’s gonna upset the applecart, someone who’s going to be an agent of change, rather than just another Jefferson City person who’s gonna go along to get along and not get much done,” said one Scharf campaign aide.

Multiple sources who spoke to ABC News said voters perceive Jefferson City to be a “swamp” — despite it being a seat of unified Republican power — and said the perception extends to those who work there, including Bailey, who was appointed to his role by a governor he previously served as general counsel, regardless of policy.

“[Bailey] is a good pro-Trump, pro-Second Amendment, pro-life conservative,” the third GOP strategist said. “I don’t think you can really find anything wrong with his record as attorney general.”

Bailey’s campaign has highlighted the litany of lawsuits he’s filed against the Biden administration and action on culture war issues, including local lightning rods such as going after former St. Louis prosecutor Kim Gardner and defending Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker over controversial remarks he made about women.

“I think that Andrew Bailey is doing all the right things that you’d want to see in a conservative fighter, and I think Missourians will respond well to that in August,” Hafner said.

“We’ve been as pro-Trump as Scharf has been,” he added. “There’s not going to be a whole lot of daylight where we’re at ideologically, but man, there’s a whole lot of character issues that we’re gonna make a pretty significant contrast with Will Scharf on.”

To be certain, Bailey is not the only conservative to be targeted in Missouri this year. The state’s Republican National Committee members, all of whom ran with Trump’s endorsement, were ousted this year. And the GOP primary to replace term-limited Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, is also divisive.

But the attorney general primary offers particularly incisive tea leaves given the way Bailey has performed in office — and, strategists said, in a race dominated by national trends, overcoming Scharf’s proximity to Trump will be no small feat.

“I’m not sure if he can do anything,” the third strategist bluntly said.

“He’s going to attempt to say that Will Scharf is this kid from New England who’s a private-equity kid who went to Harvard … and he’s a carpetbagger,” the source added. “Will that persuade some voters? Yes. But at the end of the day, in Missouri, I think statewide Trump with Republicans has nearly an 80% favorable rating. And so, if you’re Will Scharf, you can kind of write off the 20% that maybe don’t like Trump and still win.”

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