Missouri Is the Next Front in the Covid Culture War

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Can Eric Schmitt, Missouri’s anti-mandate attorney general, sue his way to the U.S. Senate?

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletters.

There’s a particular spot in Jefferson City, Missouri, the state capital, where you can walk a few yards and pass through three different sets of masking rules. Struggling against the heavy wooden doors of the state-supreme-court building and stepping through, you leave the zone of the city and county recommendations—mask when you can’t keep distance—and enter a space where masks are required by order of the court. From there, you can peer through a glass door into a government office, a parallel pandemic universe where no one can tell you what to put on your face—and where trying to do so is a form of government overreach and social control.

This is the fiefdom of Eric Schmitt, the Missouri attorney general and Republican U.S. Senate candidate. Schmitt has routinely snagged national headlines throughout the pandemic for his habit of suing people, most recently over masks. He is certainly not the only or best-known state official with bigger political ambitions battling public-health mandates in the name of personal freedom. Florida has Ron DeSantis, Texas has Greg Abbott—both governors wielding executive orders and fueling presidential speculation. Missouri does not have such a governor. Instead it has Schmitt, an ambitious attorney general wielding lawsuits.

He started by suing the People’s Republic of China for unleashing the pandemic through “an appalling campaign of deceit, concealment, misfeasance, and inaction.” Then it was a Missouri business that he accused of wildly overcharging for masks. Lately, Schmitt has turned his powers of litigation against attempted COVID-19 mitigation that he deems unnecessary and harmfulHis latest salvo, filed in late August, is a lawsuit targeting mask mandates in Missouri public-school districts; this month he promised still more lawsuits over the Biden administration’s new vaccine mandates.

Meanwhile, within the very office that generates these lawsuits, young staffers politely don masks to step into public areas where signs have proliferated to warn Schmitt people that they’re entering court territory. Here, a bitter statewide fight over masks plays out as a passive-aggressive workplace drama. Here, too, the contradictions offer a fitting backdrop for Schmitt’s evolution from a personable, aisle-crossing state legislator who once voted for a vaccine mandate to a firebrand partisan primary candidate who now says that public-health mandates show only that “the Left is obsessed with power & control.”

Schmitt has placed himself at the center of the COVID wars in a state where vaccinations fall stubbornly below the national average and where, earlier in the summer, the Delta variant ignited its first major outbreak in the United States. In Missouri as elsewhere, the mask-mandate fight is overshadowing the promotion of vaccines—which, as Schmitt himself has noted in lawsuits, remain the best way to combat the pandemic. He rarely advertises this. And although some of his Republican primary rivals encourage vaccination while emphasizing personal choice, Schmitt has appeared hostile even to admitting being vaccinated himself. (He is.) His story, along with the ways in which his ambition has drawn him into partisan combat in a public-health culture war, is a vivid demonstration of how national politics has poisoned local debates, pitting people against one another instead of against COVID-19, even as state and local governments remain the front line of pandemic response.

Nine years ago, Schmitt was looming over a lectern in full academic regalia, barely believing his luck. He was wrapping up his first term in the Missouri Senate, as a legislator from a suburban St. Louis County district, and his alma mater had asked him to give the commencement address. He was honored to be back at Truman State, in Kirksville, Missouri, where he’d not only earned his degree but also met his wife. (“In your wildest dreams,” he said he asked her, “did you ever imagine we’d be back here and I’d be giving this speech? And she said, ‘You know, Eric, I got news for ya: You’ve never been in my wildest dreams.’”) He told the graduates about the importance of service; he urged them to not be cynical, and to maybe even run for office—“just don’t run against me.” And he reflected that working for a purpose larger than oneself was “not tied to being a Republican or being a Democrat, or being conservative or being liberal, or being rich or being poor, or anywhere in between.” Everyone had something to give, he said: That was what bound us all together.

Back then he seemed to mean it. He teamed up with Democrats on protecting the elderly from financial fraud and mandating insurance coverage for autism therapy—something he took personally as the father of a child with autism and many other health problems. Also for the sake of his son and others with similar challenges, he pushed for access to CBD. In 2014, Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported recently, Schmitt even voted—along with the rest of the Republican state-Senate caucus—to require vaccines for resident students at state colleges when meningitis was breaking out on Missouri campuses. At that time, Schmitt wasn’t tweeting “Fight Tyranny. Crush Marxism. Love America”—as he has, verbatim, six times since July. Instead, he was tweeting a lot about Cardinals baseball, and he liked to mark Festivus around Christmastime.

“This guy totally changed,” says Jamilah Nasheed, who served alongside Schmitt in the legislature as a Democratic state senator from St. Louis. She recalls spending free time in his office, talking politics and listening to Biggie Smalls—“on his playlist, by the way; it wasn’t my playlist.” They differed on fundamental principles: Schmitt was anti-abortion and anti–gun restrictions; Nasheed was neither. But they could work together, and they could hang. “Eric was a guy that, you know, we would literally go to his house, Democrats and Republicans, once a year” for an event he hosted there, she told me. “He was able to do that because he didn’t drive the nail too hard in the backs of Democrats with that conservatism.” She saw him as someone who tried to find common cause and common purpose.

“I always found him to be of the highest moral character and integrity,” says Robert Schaaf, a former Republican state senator who also served with Schmitt. “There’s no such thing as truly bipartisan; everyone has their own system of beliefs,” he told me. But in Schaaf’s view, Schmitt was an expert at listening to the other side and finding compromise—“as bipartisan as anyone can be.”

Schmitt was so malleable on certain issues, in fact, that he angered at least one fellow Republican. Jane Cunningham, who had campaigned for Schmitt and served in the state Senate with him, soon came to view him as a RINO more interested in being liked than in taking stands, and more interested in himself than in any particular principle. She told me that the autism-therapy bill, for instance, had nothing to do with being conservative. “Republicans don’t put insurance mandates on things—that’s Obamacare,” Cunninghan said. “He worked on issues to benefit himself.” Also to benefit Communist China. Years before he sued the country’s government over COVID, Cunningham noted, he pushed (ultimately unsuccessful) plans to bring a Chinese and global cargo hub to the St. Louis airport, and supported (ultimately successful) legislation to let a Chinese-owned company buy up Missouri farmland.

He would soon get more comfortable with being disliked, and alienate other former allies in the process. “I knew Eric—where did he go?” says Gerry Welch, the mayor of Webster Groves, Missouri, who saw him all the time at church and would occasionally grab coffee with him. She found him easy to get along and talk with. “And then,” she told me. “And then …”

Welch said Schmitt started avoiding her on Sundays at Mary Queen of Peace. She’s pretty sure the trouble started after the Ferguson protests, in 2014—during the same summer when Schmitt launched his first statewide campaign, for state treasurer. This was when he was still endearing himself to some Democrats, including Nasheed, who co-sponsored a bill with him to help fix some of the problems that the police shooting of Michael Brown had laid bare. Their bill fought a local practice that had become nationally notorious: municipalities “using their police forces to write as many citations as possible to increase their revenue,” which, Schmitt wrote at the time, “disproportionately hurt the poor and disadvantaged who are often unable to pay the fine or court costs.” He decried “debtors’ prisons” full of people who simply couldn’t pay. “He did do something to try to help African Americans,” Nasheed told me.

Welch is a Democrat; she said that trying to stop this practice was “obviously a good idea.” Yet when Schmitt was promoting the bill, she said, it was almost like a switch went off. Suddenly he was combative, attacking municipal officials in general as “treating their citizens as nothing more than ATMs,” and painting local officials like her as bureaucrats standing in the way of progress at the expense of the poor. (He was always careful to support law enforcement, saying that police wanted to serve the public, not write citations.) Welch objected to some specific provisions of the bill—she conceded that some municipalities abused fines, but said that, used properly, they could be an important tool to stop violations, such as abandoned properties that could attract crime or pose a fire hazard. But as for Schmitt himself, she was so sure that the nice guy she knew from church wouldn’t be so bellicose that she called his office to make sure there wasn’t some mistake. “I said to his administrative assistant, ‘Someone is misquoting Eric,’” she recalled. They weren’t.

Seven years later, the issues have changed, but the tone has become part of Schmitt’s political brand. You can draw a curvy but continuous line from that 2014 fight to the COVID wars of today, and it helps explain the seeming paradox that his critics zero in on now: What happened to the Republican Party of local control? Why would conservative statewide officials meddle in localities’ decisions? Mike Parson, Missouri’s GOP governor, has displayed a more passive form of conservatism, shunning statewide mandates but generally leaving local ones alone. Schmitt, though, presents himself as standing athwart overzealous liberal bureaucrats, yelling “biomedical security state”—a phrase he seems to have picked up from DeSantis, who used it in Florida a little more than a week before Schmitt debuted it in Missouri. Schmitt’s position on masks and vaccines is that local government isn’t local enough to make the decision: That belongs with what he calls the ultimate local institution, the family.

Schmitt explained this to Missourinet, not to me. His spokesperson declined repeated requests for an interview but did offer this statement: “These mask mandates and proposed vaccine passports are another way for government to acquire, aggregate, and maintain power ... If you’re vaccinated and you want to wear six masks while jogging around Forest Park for hours, this is America, you’re certainly free to do that. But the actions I’ve taken in court are to prevent government from attempting to impose their will on the people of Missouri.”

Thus: lawsuits—a blitz against local mask mandates beginning in late July, hitting St. Louis, Kansas City, and their surrounding counties, and then this latest one aimed at school districts. They’ve gotten Schmitt national media attention, including Fox News airtime, scolding from the White House podium, and many opportunities to get his name in front of Republican primary voters in a Senate race where, so far, he’s about neck and neck at the head of the pack. (His chief rival is former Governor Eric Greitens, who resigned in a sex, blackmail, and dark-money scandal in 2018 but has the virtue of name recognition.)

What they haven’t gotten him—yet—is the reversal of any mandates. St. Louis County’s fell apart on its own, in an intra-Democrat power struggle on the county council, which then backed a symbolic resolution to encourage but not enforce mask wearing. The other mandates remain in place as Schmitt’s lawsuits work their way through the system. Michael Wolff, the former chief justice of Missouri, doesn’t see a high chance of success: “Lawsuits,” he emailed me, “are not effective unless the legislature has passed a bill, signed by the governor, which is law. The courts normally will not enforce some general idea of ‘freedom’—courts need law from the legislature. Courts will not make it up.”

That hasn’t stopped Schmitt from claiming credit in grandiose terms, telling a fundraising dinner recently that with the demise of the St. Louis County mandate, “a million people have been freed from tyranny,” as if he’d just personally pried Estonia out of the Soviet Union.

Putting aside both hyperbole and the merits of the debate over masking in schools or anywhere else, Schmitt’s stark evolution tracks with both his changing constituency and his growing ambition. He no longer represents moderate St. Louis suburbanites, but all the voters of a state Trump won by 15 points in 2020. He undoubtedly has his eye on the further-right subset destined to turn out for the GOP Senate primary next August.

His opponents in that race have all, to varying degrees, advertised their ties to Trump. Greitens, who led the latest St. Louis University poll of the field, has the former Trump-campaign official Kimberly Guilfoyle on his staff. Vicky Hartzler, a U.S. representative from a rural district in West Central Missouri, isn’t personally close to Trump but touts having voted with him more than 95 percent of the time. Mark McCloskey, the personal-injury attorney best known for brandishing his AR-15 at protesters outside his house, saw Trump praise his pardon for fourth-degree assault. (Governor Parson, not Trump, issued the pardon.) And Billy Long, another U.S. representative, formerly known as the best auctioneer in the Ozarks, is campaigning around the state in a vehicle that he calls the “Billy Bus,” advising voters: “If you were on the ‘Trump Train’ you need to get on the ‘Billy Bus’ now.”

As a St. Louisan, Schmitt can’t out-rural Long or Hartzler; as a professional politician, he can’t out-outsider McCloskey. His closest analogue in the race is Greitens, who has the dual handicap of being a former Democrat and also having been charged with two felonies, stemming from an allegedly semi-coercive sexual encounter and from allegedly misusing his veterans charity’s donor list for political fundraising. (Both charges were later dropped; another ambitious Missouri attorney general, who investigated some of these allegations, did wind up in the U.S. Senate: Josh Hawley.) Schmitt, from his perch at the AG’s office, is doing his darndest to neutralize Greitens’s name-recognition advantage as lawsuit after lawsuit gets headline after headline. He might just pull it off: A poll from earlier this month has him leading the entire field, beating Greitens by one point. Meanwhile, other polling—not specific to Missouri—suggests that he’s exactly where his target voters are: Republicans overwhelmingly oppose mask mandates and overwhelmingly view the issue as one of personal freedom.

Nasheed understands Schmitt’s political incentives, but his new public persona makes her sad. In her case, partisan politics changed her relationship with Schmitt: She never really fell out with him, so much as she stopped dealing with him as he drifted further right in the Trump era. “I really know him deep down inside,” she said. She still likes the guy; she wants him to, in her words, come back toward the center. “But, you know, politics makes you do strange things when you’re trying to climb the ladder.”

Others who have served with Schmitt don’t think he’s really changed. Tom Dempsey, a Republican from St. Charles County, who also served with Schmitt in the state Senate, told me that he found Schmitt’s voting record to be generally conservative, including a vote to bar employers from requiring union membership. He said Schmitt’s Senate career doesn’t justify painting him as a moderate, although “in his tone and in his demeanor he definitely wants to work with people on both sides of the aisle. … He doesn’t write anybody off.” Pragmatist, yes. Moderate, no. Dempsey did not wish to comment on the tone of the lawsuits or the tweets but said, “I think he’s the same person he’s always been.” Cunningham, his fellow Republican, had a less charitable view: “I think he’s a chameleon, always has been, and he’s just changing his colors to match what he needs right now.”

In the meantime, the COVID situation in Missouri is as confusing as its mask politics, with the state roughly in the middle of the country in COVID case and death rates, and doing worse on vaccinations than most states but better than every other state but four on pulling down its hospitalization rate. More Missouri school districts have issued mask mandates since Schmitt filed his latest lawsuit; a fight broke out after one school board outside Kansas City approved such a mandate unanimously. Schmitt has further confused matters by offering “legal direction” to students in the Kansas City area, saying that they actually don’t have to follow any mask mandates. But it wasn’t so long ago, at the beginning of all this, that Schmitt himself offered up a moment of clarity: “It’s right there,” he tweeted in March 2020, “on the center of Missouri’s flag—United We Stand (although 6 feet apart for a while). Divided We Fall.”

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletters.

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