KANSAS CITY • Missouri’s top elected Republicans gathered here this weekend for their annual show of party unity, gamely smiling through in-party fissures that have divided the state GOP recently.
Amid various events at the party’s “Lincoln Days” convention, organizers and officials boisterously cheered Gov. Eric Greitens — who not long ago faced calls for his resignation from some fellow Republicans after admitting a past extramarital affair while denying allegations he threatened to blackmail the woman.
Also in attendance at the sprawling Westin Kansas City Hotel was state Senate President Ron Richard, who last week threw up a roadblock to Greitens’ major tax-cut plan, saying it would drive the state into the red. Yet there was no public hint of that discord here as Greitens repeatedly stumped for the plan and Richard stayed largely out of sight.
At a big breakfast event was Attorney General Josh Hawley, fresh off a mini-scandal involving his comments about the sexual revolution. But no one in the crowd was talking about that as he whipped them up with a battle cry for the coming elections. Nor was there was any mention of his pending investigation of Greitens’ use of a self-erasing text messaging app that some say violates state Sunshine laws.
As Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft put it, in a grinning comment about the tax debate that could as easily have applied to the whole gathering: “We’re going to politely fight that out.”
If the convention sported a notable lack of open conflict among party members, it could be because the meat of it was kept behind closed doors. In an unusual move, party organizers kept reporters out of several meetings at which party leaders hashed out political and legislative issues and strategy.
State GOP Executive Director Sam Cooper said the purpose of closing the meetings to the press was to allow “frank discussion with the grass roots” of the party. He offered no further details of what was said.
Greitens recently presented a major plan that would cut state income taxes for most Missourians to 5.2 percent from the current top rate of 5.9 percent, putting hundreds of millions of dollars back in citizens’ pockets.
The administration says the cuts will be mostly paid for by eliminating certain deductions and business tax incentives.
But Richard, the Republican Senate leader, told reporters last week: “The governor’s tax plan I don’t think is valid. It’s got some holes in it. I don’t believe it’s revenue-neutral.”
That assessment didn’t stop Greitens from touting the plan before a jubilant crowd of supporters at the convention Saturday afternoon.
“We’ve got an opportunity in the spring, as Republicans, as conservatives, to make a difference for people all over this state,” Greitens told the gathering. He said he had been in constructive talks with Richard and other lawmakers “who want to come together” on the issue.
Richard attended the convention but wasn’t in the room for those comments. He couldn’t be reached later.
The Lincoln Days convention comes on the heels of the airing last week of audio of Hawley, the state attorney general and a leading GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, blaming modern sex trafficking on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s.
Those comments drew national attention and anger from critics who pointed out that the sexual revolution ushered in things such as accessible birth control and other advances for women.
Hawley, asked about the issue by reporters at the convention on Saturday, stood by his earlier comments but specified that his objections to the sexual revolution were that “it became OK for Hollywood and the media to openly portray women as objects of sexual gratification. ... We have got to end this acceptance of exploitation of women.” Hawley has said he supports access to birth control.
The national political event of the hour, of course, was last week’s release of a memo written by congressional Republican staff critical of the Justice Department’s handling of its investigation into the Donald Trump presidential campaign’s alleged contacts with Russia before the election.
President Trump’s defenders point to the memo as proof that the investigation is a witch hunt by rogue federal law enforcement officials intent on bringing down his presidency.
His detractors say it’s nothing but a partisan public relations stunt designed to give Trump cover should he try to fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller or otherwise impede the collusion investigation.
Hawley and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., staked out identical ground when asked about the issue at the convention Saturday: support for the release of the memo as a matter of government transparency, but opposition to any attempt by Trump to fire Mueller.
“This is a case where more information is better than less,” Blunt said. He said his reading of the memo didn’t find any of the national security concerns that critics of its release had warned of. ”Frankly I think the FBI had good reason to not want this document out to where people could see it, which is exactly why people should see it. Hopefully, the FBI has learned its lesson here and we won’t see this kind of thing happen again.”
He added, though, that he remained opposed to any attempt by Trump to fire Mueller, though Blunt doesn’t favor legislation preventing it.
“The president has every right to fire Mueller, but it would be a big mistake if he did it,” Blunt said. “He knows I think that.”
Hawley, who is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., this fall, said that he hadn’t read the widely distributed four-page memo yet but that “I’m in favor of transparency. Get the facts out there.”
He said the possibility of Trump firing Mueller “seems like a lot of speculation,” adding: “The Mueller investigation needs to go forward. I’m all for wrapping it up in a timely basis …. Let’s put it all on the table and then let’s move on.”
Recent polling indicates that more than 60 percent of Americans favor legislation protecting Mueller from being fired, indicating that even some of Trump’s supporters believe he shouldn’t try to remove the prosecutor.