With Greitens out, independent is new challenge for Schmitt

FILE - John Wood, committee investigative staff counsel, speaks for the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol hearing at the Capitol in Washington, on June 16, 2022. Wood, a Republican running as an independent, will face off against Republican Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Democrat Trudy Busch Valentine in the November elections. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) (Susan Walsh, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Republican leaders got their wish with the defeat of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens in the U.S. Senate primary. Now, they face another complication: A well-funded, right-leaning political newcomer who could splinter some of the Republican and independent vote in November.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt pulled off a stunningly dominant win in the GOP primary on Tuesday. Greitens, forced by sex and campaign finance scandals to resign in 2018 and accused by his ex-wife of abuse in a March court document, didn't even finish second, bested also by U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler.

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Schmitt will face Democrat Trudy Busch Valentine in November. The X factor is John Wood, a Republican running as an independent. He served as U.S. attorney in Missouri from 2007 to 2009 and before that held key roles in President George W. Bush's administration. He was most recently a senior investigative counsel for the Jan. 6 committee.

Backed by a political action committee led by retired Republican Sen. John Danforth, Wood reiterated Wednesday that he’s in it to win it. He accused Schmitt of extremism, noting his court challenge to the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“He’s very divisive and extreme and playing to the extreme parts of the Republican Party,” Wood said of Schmitt. "I think there is still room for a mainstream candidate who is going to appeal to a large segment of Missouri voters.”

Schmitt, 47, is a former state senator from suburban St. Louis who was elected state treasurer in 2016. He was appointed attorney general after Josh Hawley vacated the seat following his election to the U.S. Senate in 2019. Schmitt won another term as attorney general in 2020. He was among many who entered the Senate race soon after two-term incumbent Republican Roy Blunt announced last year that he would retire.

Missouri was considered a swing state as recently as a decade ago. Now, it’s solidly Republican, making Schmitt the odds-on favorite. Still, he'll face two well-funded opponents.

Valentine, 65, is an heiress to the Anheuser-Busch fortune. Her campaign was late-starting and largely self-funded, but her onslaught of TV ads overcame a strong grassroots effort by Marine veteran Lucas Kunce, who outraised everyone — Republican or Democrat — during the primary.

Wood, 52, has the powerful support of Danforth, who believes Wood is part of the answer to the vitriol permeating politics. Danforth said in a statement that his Missouri Stands United PAC has already spent $5 million on Wood's campaign and will spend more, including $700,000 over the next three weeks alone on TV and digital ads.

Missouri GOP operative John Hancock said Wood has “zero chance” of winning, and he doesn't believe he can take enough votes away from Schmitt to push Valentine to victory.

“They’re not positioning (Wood) as an independent, middle of the road, they’re positioning him as a conservative, and the Republicans just nominated a conservative," Hancock said. "So there’s no real lane for him to run in here. And given the state of the electorate in Missouri and how substantially right of center it is, if he ends up in the single digits or even the low double digits, Eric Schmitt still wins.”

Still, Wood is showing some signs of support. To get on the November ballot as an independent, he needed to submit petitions signed by 10,000 registered voters by Aug. 1. He turned in more than 20,000.

Valentine's campaign manager, Alex Witt, said the presence of Wood “definitely disrupts the partisan trend we've been seeing in Missouri for the past few cycles, and I do think it makes this race very competitive for a Democrat.

“Missourians are going to find Trudy's experience as a nurse and her commonsense and compassionate approach really appealing,” Witt said.

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