Never too early: Here's what we're watching for Missouri's 2022 U.S. Senate race

Austin Huguelet
Springfield News-Leader

There are more than 630 days between Monday and the midterms, but the race for Missourians’ votes has already begun.

Twenty months out, two Democrats have already launched campaigns to run against Republican Sen. Roy Blunt and another has formed an exploratory committee to raise money.

They’re not alone in thinking ahead.

Across the country, Republicans and Democrats are looking at the Senate map with plans to solidify the gains and avenge the losses of November, and with the upper chamber split 50-50 right now, every competitive race has the potential to be a big deal.

With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about Missouri’s race.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri.

This is no battleground state

First off: Roy Blunt is probably going to win.

That's not an insult to his Democratic challengers, just an acknowledgment of Blunt's advantages.

As is typical of incumbents, he's already better-known than any Democrat running so far. He's got more money, too. And while his opponents can talk about what they want to do for voters, he can talk about what he's actually done for them.

In the past two years alone, marquee wins have included a $21 million grant for Springfield’s Grant Avenue Parkway and an $81 million grant to replace a crucial bridge connecting Columbia to Kansas City.

Of course, he's also a Republican running in Missouri.

GOP candidates have won 15 of 16 statewide contests since 2012, and so far, the Washington prognosticators have seen no indication Blunt will defy the trend.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report defines the race in two words: "Solid Republican."

And if that wasn’t enough, he’s also got a Democratic president and history on his side.

That's not a typo: the president’s party historically loses seats in the midterm elections.

Steve Rogers, a political scientist at St. Louis University, summed it up this way: "I'd be shocked if Blunt lost."

Democrats still have opportunities to gain attention

That said, there are still reasons to fight on the other side of the aisle.

Democrats might not beat Blunt, but they can beat expectations with a solid campaign that puts them in a position to take advantage if the race suddenly changes.

Dan Ponder, a political scientist at Drury University in Springfield, said candidates are taking steps in that direction by declaring runs so early.

"Starting earlier is better than starting later," Ponder said. "You have more time to get your name out there, raise money and shape your message — and you're going to need all the time you can get."

Democrats also point out that they came within 3 percentage points of beating Blunt last time with a campaign painting him as a Washington insider with a family is full of lobbyists, which was and is true.

That probably had as much to do with the messenger — former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander — as the message, though.

Kander, an energetic Army veteran, was also able to draw national attention and money with gambits like an ad in which he assembled an AR-15 blindfolded — and it’s not clear Democrats can replicate that in 2022.

Kander has told acquaintances he has no plans to challenge Blunt again, and it remains to be seen whether any of the new candidates can do what he did.

The national money that poured in to help Kander may also be in short supply regardless.

With lots of money and energy needed for races sure to be competitive in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio, Democrats may not be willing to spend as much here.

Democrats privately concede that the party might be especially gun-shy after spending more than $10 million to support State Auditor Nicole Galloway in last year's governor’s race only to see her lose by 16 points.

More:2022 Senate race: St. Louis Democrat Scott Sifton announces run against Roy Blunt

Could Eric Greitens enter the race?

One cure for that neglect could be in the works on the other side of the aisle.

For years, GOP incumbents have been stalked by rumors of former Gov. Eric Greitens making a comeback, and some observers say 2022 could be the year they come true.

Greitens stormed into office in 2017 promising to take on the politicians and "insiders" in Jefferson City even though many were in his own party, drawing comparisons to then-President Donald Trump.

He resigned in disgrace amid allegations of sexual misconduct and campaign finance violations in 2018, but he's since embarked on a campaign casting himself as a victim of insider sabotage and started hosting a TV show alongside Trump associates like Steve Bannon.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens reads from a prepared statement as he announces his resignation during a news conference, Tuesday, May 29, 2018, at the state Capitol, in Jefferson City, Mo. Greitens resigned amid a widening investigation that arose from an affair with his former hairdresser. Greitens said his resignation would take effect Friday.

Greitens dodged a question about challenging Blunt on the right-wing channel Newsmax last week, but he didn't shy away from the topic either, blasting Blunt as out-of-step with Missourians for his recent criticism of Trump

If Greitens decides he’s what Missourians want instead, it could reshape the race.

Even if he didn’t win, Crystal Quade, the Democratic leader in the Missouri House, said Greitens could bring out an extreme right and potentially force Blunt too far from the center for the general election.

She said he could also help brand Blunt as the “establishment" and compliment Democrats’ attacks.

And if Greitens managed to defeat Blunt — a recent MoScout/Remington poll showed Greitens down 13 percentage points with 25 percent undecided — a strong Democratic candidate could feasibly draw national money to replay the highlights of Greitens’ scandals and potentially win.

There’s reason to think that won’t happen, though.

For one, while Blunt did say Trump made a "personal mistake" by skipping Biden's inauguration, he's no Mitt Romney.

He didn’t follow fellow Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley in objecting to the 2020 election results, but he indulged Trump when he claimed the election had been stolen and opposed Democrats’ decision to impeach him.

Steve Rogers, the SLU political scientist, said it’s also unclear whether Trump Republicans will turn out for someone like Greitens.

“I think there’s a certain aspect of Trump Republicans that care about Trump, not politics, and with him gone, I think they may fade away,” he said.

Greg Vonnahme, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said Blunt would also have plenty of support from the national party.

With three GOP senators retiring and losses in Georgia and Arizona to avenge, party leaders aren’t going to want to worry about Missouri in November," he said.

“If you’re them,” he said, “you already have a tough Senate map, and you don’t want to make it any harder.”

Other questions, factors in the campaign

Of course, there are a few other potential wild cards.

If Blunt, who just turned 71, decided to follow in the footsteps of his colleagues in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio and retire, that would almost certainly leave a mark.

“That primary would be a bloodbath,” said Quade, the House Democratic leader.

Republicans could end up with a bruising primary perhaps pitting lesser-known “establishment” Republicans against Greitens and others, and if Democrats could avoid a similar scrum, they might be able to take advantage.

Gordon Kinne, a Springfield businessman and member of the Republican National Committee, said Democrats shouldn't get their hopes up, though.

“I know Roy,” he said, “and he's running as far as I know."

Other than a Blunt retirement, a Kander comeback is probably the next biggest question mark.

Since his near-miss in 2016, he’s started a voting rights organization, hosted a popular podcast and drawn positive coverage in national news outlets for his openness about post-traumatic stress disorder.

He would almost certainly draw national attention to the race and reinvigorate a beleaguered party.

On the other hand, running would also mean spending months on the road campaigning and fundraising away from a job helping homeless veterans and a young family that just welcomed a new baby.

631 days and counting.

Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at ahuguelet@news-leader.com.