China becomes the first flashpoint of Missouri GOP Senate primary

Jason Hancock
Missouri Independent
Missouri Senate hopefuls Eric Schmitt, left, and Eric Greitens (campaign photos).

A bipartisan group of Missouri officials hopscotched the state in the summer of 2011 touting a plan to create a $360 million tax credit program to turn St. Louis into a hub for freight flown between China and the Midwest. 

Among the most vocal champions of the so-called China hub bill was Eric Schmitt, then a first-term state senator from St. Louis County.

“St. Louis and Missouri must not miss this opportunity,” he said at the time

But it was not to be.

The deal, which offset the cost of China hub incentives by reducing or eliminating other tax credits, stalled during a special legislative session over disagreements between the House and Senate

The bill was shelved and the Missouri political world moved on — for a while at least. 

A decade later, China hub became the first public skirmish of the 2022 GOP Senate primary. 

Now a leading candidate for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, Schmitt faces a much different GOP base than in 2011 — largely, but not exclusively, thanks to Donald Trump.

Former Gov. Eric Greitens, one of five GOP candidates currently running for Senate, pilloried Schmitt’s record to the right-wing conspiracy website Breitbart — on China hub, but also on Schmitt’s support for 2013 legislation that made it possible for a Chinese food processing conglomerate to own Missouri farmland

In response, Schmitt’s campaign hammered Greitens for a trip to China as governor where he sat for a 15-minute interview with a television station controlled by the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party.

The back-and-forth is likely only a preview of things to come, as candidates jockey for position in Trump’s Republican Party — where an unflinchingly hard line against China is gospel.

“The whole China narrative kind of changed, and amplified, in recent years,” said James Harris, a longtime Missouri political consultant who is not working for any active Senate campaigns but is advising U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, a potential candidate

“If you talk to your average Missouri Republican voter now,” Harris said, “they likely believe that at some point the United States will be in conflict, whether it’s a trade war or potentially a military conflict, with China.”

That Schmitt and Greitens have a history of welcoming Chinese business and investment to the state should not be surprising, as “the GOP has traditionally tried to portray itself as the pro-business party,” said Joshua Holzer, assistant professor of political science at Westminster College in Fulton.

“However, during Trump’s presidency, his administration initiated a trade war with China and sought to pile much of the blame for COVID-19 onto China,” Holzer said. “Trump’s continued influence within the Republican Party means that being anti-China is now more important than being pro-business.”

Ghosts of 2016

But even before Trump ascended to the party’s leadership, anti-China sentiment played well in Missouri GOP politics. 

Case in point: the 2016 GOP primary for attorney general. 

In that race, now U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley was running against Kurt Schaefer, who at the time was in his second term in the Missouri Senate. 

A political action committee supporting Hawley ran an ad depicting one Chinese businessman bragging to another in Mandarin about how he was able to buy a Missouri farm after Schaefer helped change a state law. 

The ad was referencing a 2013 bill that allowed 1% of farmland to be foreign owned. Previously, foreign ownership of Missouri farmland was banned. The legislation opened the door for a Chinese company to purchase Smithfield Foods and its 40,000 acres of Missouri farmland. 

The 2016 ad concluded with a narrator highlighting Schaefer’s support of the bill, saying: “Tell Kurt Schaefer to stop helping the Chinese buy our farms.”

Asian-American organizations and businesses condemned the ad as “xenophobic” and “racist,” but Harris said its impact in the primary is undeniable. Hawley went on to beat Schaefer by nearly 30 percentage points. 

Schmitt must know, Harris said, that his vote for that bill is a political liability. 

“As we saw in the 2016 attorney general primary, that was a lethal issue that resonates with Missouri Republicans,” said Harris, who has served as a political adviser for Hawley over the years. 

‘American first’

Schmitt’s campaign noted the attorney general was threatened with sanctions by China after filing a federal lawsuit against the country and the Chinese Communist Party over its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak

“China is our single greatest threat to democracy and freedom, and Missourians deserve a senator with a proven track record of putting America first and standing up to China,” Schmitt’s spokeswoman, Charli Huddleston, said in an email to The Independent. 

Sean Fowler, a former mayor of Eureka who is backing Schmitt, said the attorney general’s support for China hub in 2011 was about “bringing manufacturing jobs back to where he grew up, exporting Missouri made goods to benefit the ag economy across the state and fix broken tax credit programs that had been abused for years.”

If Greitens is so concerned about China, Fowler said, “why did he go to China as governor and appear on Communist-run state television attempting to cozy up to Chinese businesses and government officials during the same time that President Trump was working hard to blunt the Chinese threat?”

Greitens’ campaign shot back that his trip was nothing out of the ordinary for elected officials.

As part of his first trade mission as governor, Greitens visited China in September 2017 to meet with government officials, business executives and civic and educational leaders in Beijing and Shanghai.

“There’s a difference between meeting Chinese officials as an elected official — like President Trump, U.S. senators and governors have — versus helping the Chinese Communist Party steal United States soil and kill off jobs like some other candidates have done,” said Dylan Johnson, Greitens’ campaign manager.  

During the 17 months he served as governor before resigning to avoid impeachment and settle a felony charge, Greitens never publicly criticized the law allowing foreign ownership of Missouri farmland.

In an email endorsing Greitens’ candidacy last week, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn took what was seen as a veiled shot at Schmitt, saying the country doesn’t need career politicians in Washington, “especially not those with ties to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Anti-China

Two other prominent candidates in the race — U.S. Reps. Vicky Hartzer and BIlly Long — have managed to stay out of the current fracas while touting their own anti-China bona fides.

Attorney Mark McCloskey’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Long said in an email that he has been “warning against the Chinese Communist Party’s desire for world domination ever since my talk radio days in the 1990’s.”

After ticking through a litany of Chinese foreign policy moves over the years, Long said it should be “as plain as the nose on your face that they do seek world domination. All Americans, whether a candidate for U.S. Senate or not, should be extremely concerned about China.”

Michael Hafner, Hartzler’s campaign manager, said in an email to The Independent that “Communist China is dead set on dominating America economically and militarily.”

China is a “threat to our nation,” Hafner said, “but unfortunately too many of our politicians in both parties have aided and abetted their rise. President Biden shamefully refuses to stand up to them, and sadly even some Republicans have weakly sold out. Vicky won’t be fooled by China and will always have the courage to fight for us.”