While Jay Ashcroft, the son of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, was always interested in politics, he also said he didn’t consider it “the highest calling.”
“My highest calling in life is to be a good husband to my wife and to be a good father for my kids," said the attorney and engineer from unincorporated St. Louis County. “In the last couple of years when I’ve seen how government has been working at the state level and unfortunately not always working, I kept coming around to the conclusion that I need to be part of the solution.”
Ashcroft was a last-minute entrant into the race for the St. Louis County 24th District Senate seat. In an election year when compelling contests are few and far between, the race to succeed state Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, is one of the few Senate races gaining attention.
Ashcroft will have to get past two other Republican candidates in a primary. And if he prevails, he’ll face state Rep. Jill Schupp – a Creve Coeur Democrat with a reputation as a solid campaigner and fundraiser.
For her part, Schupp isn’t taking anything for granted – especially when Republicans could easily ship money to the winner of the primary. But she likes the prospect of a vigorous GOP primary in the Democratic-leaning district.
“I am happy to watch them spend their money fighting and clawing their way to get the opportunity to run against me,” Schupp said.
Filling the void
Last year Lamping indicated he might not run again because his family had relocated to the Kansas City area so his daughter could train as a gymnast. So it was not a big surprise when he didn't file.
Yet even though the 24th District is home to some prominent Republicans, three relative newcomers filed for the GOP primary: Ashcroft, Olivette attorney Jack Spooner and Creve Coeur physician Robb Hicks.
Ashcroft, who has an engineering degree, now works at The Ashcroft Group. (His dad served as a U.S. attorney general, U.S. senator, Missouri governor, Missouri attorney general and Missouri auditor.)
When it comes to his political ideology, Ashcroft said, he’s a "firm believer that the purpose of government is to provide a minimum level of security for people so that they can then enjoy their freedom and liberty.”
“When I was growing up as a child, I was taught that people should be able to do whatever they want to do as long as it doesn’t hurt other people,” Ashcroft said. “We need government to work to do things that allow people to live their lives the way they want to.”
Spooner, an attorney, filed -- like Hicks -- in late February. A lifelong St. Louis County resident, Spooner said he’s more of a “centrist than a rightist.” And he said it’s necessary to connect with Democratic voters in a district that isn’t heavily Republican.
“This is a swing district,” Spooner said. “And for the Republicans to hold this seat, you’re going to need a candidate who can draw from that swing. If you can’t draw from that swing, because the district tilts Democratic, then the seat’s going to be lost.”
In a statement released in February, Hicks says he’s an advocate for “health-care reform,” “efficient and limited government” and “the tens of thousands of Missourians who are suffering the effects of alcoholism and drug addiction.”
Three’s a crowd?
While two of the candidates could withdraw from the contest, that’s not looking likely. Spooner, for instance, has already received a $20,000 donation -- and he’s planning to raise nearly $1 million. (As of Monday, Ashcroft and Hicks hadn't starting campaign fundraising committees.)
“A challenge is a challenge. I’ll get out there. I’m going to concentrate on my campaign and getting my message out and letting the people know that I think I’m the best person to go to Jeff City to accomplish what needs to be accomplished,” Spooner said.
There are two lines of thought about primaries before a competitive election: They can make candidates sharper and more focused – and get them out on the campaign trail sooner rather than later.
But contentious primaries can be costly. That’s what happened in 2010 in the 24th District, where Democrats Barbara Fraser and Sam Page duked it out before facing Lamping in the general election. Lamping, of course, won.
(This race also has an eerie resemblance to a 2008 state Senate race in the St. Louis County 15th District. That’s where Republican Eric Schmitt of Glendale easily prevailed after a close Democratic primary between James Trout and Steve Eagleton, the nephew of former U.S. Sen. Tom Eagleton.)
Schupp has no Democratic competition in August. She’s also received the vocal backing of Democratic statewide officials such as Attorney General Chris Koster, state Treasurer Clint Zweifel and Secretary of State Jason Kander -- and her fundraising has been solid, with nearly $260,000 in the bank.
“I feel terrific,” Schupp said. “No matter who’s in the race against me, I’m never going to take it for granted. We’re always going to assume that we need to get out and make our case to the voters. And that’s what I’m going to do. And regardless of whether these particular gentlemen are in the race or somebody else would be, I would be making sure that I made my case to the voters.”
Asked about the prospect of running in a primary, Ashcroft said: “Anything that forces me to get out and listen to the individuals of this district so that I can use their knowledge and their experience and wisdom and apply it my principles that government should increase freedom for the residents is good.”
Money in the bank
One reason Schupp isn’t slacking: The winner of the 24th District Republican primary could get a lot of financial resources very quickly.
For instance: The Missouri Senate Campaign Committee – the Republican PAC that helps out GOP Senate candidates – has $455,000 in the bank. And that figure could go up quickly, especially since a number of Republican incumbents with big campaign war chests, like Rep. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, and Sen. Jay Wasson, R-Nixa, aren’t facing significant opposition.
(It's also possible that state Auditor Tom Schweich, who doesn't have a Democratic opponent this year, may directly or indirectly help GOP legislative candidates with fundraising.)
“The Republicans tend to have an advantage in fundraising,” Schupp said. “We also knew that whoever the opponent was, he or she would be well-funded. And we’re going to make sure we have what we need to get our message out.”
Even if Schupp won, Democrats couldn't topple the GOP majority in the Missouri Senate. But she said the race is important because individuals matter more in the Missouri Senate.
“I think the difference is clear and stark,” Schupp said. “You heard what Sen. Lamping said the other day about Medicaid expansion – ‘forget about it, it’s not going to happen, move on.’ Well, that’s one of the biggest job creators this state will have ever seen. And for us not to move forward and to leave those billions of dollars on the table is unconscionable."
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads about Missouri politics.