SALEM, Mo. — The rural Dent County setting seemed particularly fitting for the U.S. Senate candidate who recently came to town. Big round bales of hay in the fields. Cattle auctioned off at market. Tractors, trailers, churches.
Lots of Republicans around who like the government lean and the military mighty.
Vicky Hartzler fits in here.
“I am just a farm girl from Archie, Missouri,” Hartzler told a crowd of 50 people who’d come to the Smith Valley Angus showroom floor to listen to her stump speech for the first time.
Hartzler wasn’t fazed by the livestock urine stains on the concrete platform where she stood. And she’s well-versed in the military. She’s in her sixth term representing Missouri’s 4th Congressional District, which includes nearby Fort Leonard Wood, an Army training post, and Whiteman Air Force Base, home of the B-2 stealth bombers.
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In Washington, she’s been a member of the House Armed Services and Agriculture committees, while also championing conservative causes on the culture front.
“We need to stand up for what we believe here,” she said. “We need to not only have the right policies and the right people, but I would say, too, we need prayer. And I would ask you to join me in praying for our nation. Ultimately that’s what is going to keep us safe and secure and preserve our freedoms for the future.”
Hartzler, 61, said she felt like one of them. Even though she was speaking outside of her district, she said, she would fight for them in the Senate. Still, her reception seemed a little frosty. Ominous banners hanging from the ceiling summed up part of the challenge in one word: Trump.
In a field of 21 Republicans vying for the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, Hartzler has been polling near the front end of the pack for the Aug. 2 primary. Then, on July 8, the former president dropped a social media bomb on Hartzler’s plans like a high school bully.
“You can forget about Vicky Hartzler for the Senate from the Great State of Missouri,” Trump wrote in his post. “She called me this morning asking for my Endorsement, much as she has on many other occasions. I was anything but positive in that I don’t think she has what it takes to take on the Radical Left Democrats, together with their partner in the destruction of our Country, the Fake News Media and, of course, the deceptive & foolish RINOs.”
After lambasting “Republicans in Name Only,” Trump concluded: “I was very nice to Vicky on the call, but will NOT BE ENDORSING HER FOR THE SENATE!”
It was a peculiar twist in the race. Former governor Eric Greitens, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. Rep. Billy Long — Hartzler’s main competition on the Republican side of the primary — also have sought Trump’s endorsement. While Trump hasn’t committed to any of them, his publicized lack of commitment to Hartzler was a notable hit.
Greitens and Schmitt already have statewide name recognition. Hartzler needs all the help she can get to win the highest percentage of Republican votes in the primary to go on to the general election in November.
In her stump speech, she didn’t speak directly about the non-endorsement, nor did it come up in the questions. But out in the audience, Matthew Williams told the Post-Dispatch that everyone was aware of the brouhaha.
“He could have done it a little more respectful, but it’s also Donald Trump,” said Williams, 38, of Steelville, who is running for state representative. “He says what he says and that’s kind of what everybody likes about him, and that’s what we voted for.”
Hartzler told the Post-Dispatch in an interview after the speech that she didn’t see the non-endorsement coming. During the call with Trump that day, she said she gave him an update on the race, told him she was leading.
“I don’t want to get in the details, but it was a very positive conversation,” she said. “So I was, you know, kind of surprised.”
She said she hadn’t spoken to Trump since and didn’t know his motivation.
“I think he listened to some of my opponents’ lies and bought into them, which is unfortunate,” she said.
Hartzler has received endorsements from U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, former U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, the Missouri Farm Bureau and other state agricultural groups. But she said voters mean the most to her.
“I really believe that the endorsement that counts is the one from Missourians,” she said, vowing to “redouble” her efforts and “work even harder” to reach people before the election.
Mike Homeyer, 65, chairman of the Dent County Republican Central Committee, which hosted the event, said invitations were sent to all the leading candidates. Hartzler was the only one who showed up in Salem.
Asked if he thinks Hartzler is capable of taking on the “radical Left,” he said: “Josh Hawley thinks she can take on the radical Left. I mean he knows more about what’s going on inside that building than I do. I think Hawley’s endorsement probably carries more weight than a Trump endorsement would.”
Then why weren’t there Hawley banners hanging from the ceiling?
“I have Hawley signs in my shop ready to go up for his next election,” Homeyer said. “And you know what, these people in this county will vote for Trump again if he runs no matter who he endorses for Senate.”
Craig Smith, 57, a Marine veteran and insurance agent, voted for Trump but said Trump’s non-endorsement of Hartzler didn’t matter to him.
“I am capable of making up my own mind,” he said.
In campaign ads, Greitens, playing the role of government outsider, blows things up and hunts fellow Republicans who have grown soft. Schmitt, who gets easy publicity from law and order lawsuits he files as attorney general, brandishes a torch in one ad, swings a baseball bat in another. Hartzler is big on guns, but she hasn’t been as explosive.
“It seems to me that her brawn is her ability to articulate her policy goals,” Robynn Kuhlmann, an associate professor of political science at University of Central Missouri, told the Post-Dispatch by telephone.
“They are distinctly different,” she added about the candidates, “yet taken together it embodies where the Republican Party is today.”
Advocate for agriculture
Before politics, Hartzler taught home economics in Lebanon and Belton.
“We are falling behind other countries in our academics and that concerns me,” she said in Salem. “That’s why I continue to be a strong advocate for us teaching the ABCs and not CRT (critical race theory). We need our kids to be learning math and science and reading. Those basic things they are going to need in life.”
Also a former track coach, she said she’s “very concerned about this new gender ideology, the indoctrination that is being put upon our kids.” Early on in the Senate race, her campaign was suspended from Twitter for criticizing a transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I won’t look away while woke liberals destroy women’s sports,” she says in the ad.
Hartzler and her husband have one adopted daughter who is an elementary school teacher. The Hartzlers farm row crops and run a cow-calf operation near Harrisonville. They also run five farm equipment stores in Missouri and Kansas that employ about 75 people. Hartzler attends a non-denominational Christian church.
She got her start in politics as a state representative in the 1990s. Then, as a spokeswoman for the Coalition to Protect Marriage in Missouri, she fought against gay marriage. In 2010, when the Tea Party movement was in full swing, she jumped into the race against U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, the powerful House Armed Services Committee Chairman, who, as a Democrat, represented Missouri’s Fourth District since 1977.
“That was a big decision,” she said, something she and her husband prayed about. “But we decided that he was casting our vote with Nancy Pelosi, and I became so concerned when she became speaker of the House.”
After winning the nine-way Republican primary, underfunded Hartzler beat Skelton.
“This wasn’t about me. This was about we — we the people of the Fourth District,” Hartzler said. “We, together, said it is time to get rid of Nancy Pelosi. It is a time to step up and fight for our country and we did it.”
With Democrats in the majority, Pelosi is House speaker again. Hartzler is one of few farmers left in Congress.
“There’s not many people there who have a direct understanding of agriculture, or even our rural way of life,” she said.
She’s advocated for expanding broadband into isolated areas of the state, including her own home, that don’t have high-speed internet, while more populated areas do.
“It’s a disparity, and we saw that in COVID,” she said. “How many kids went home from school, they couldn’t access their homework. We had senior citizens that couldn’t access telehealth. … A lot of businesses aren’t able to come to our communities.”
She said rural broadband is “the key to revitalizing the rural part of Missouri.”
“People are getting out of cities, right?” she said. “They want to live out here in the country, and if they can access high-speed internet, I think we are going to see a return of a lot of businesses and jobs, and our kids will be able to stay here and not feel like they have to leave to find a new job.”
She said the Biden administration and liberals on the West and East coasts are “ruining everything,” including U.S. energy production, securing the southern border and inflation.
“We need to get people back to work,” she said, adding that the Mississippi and Missouri rivers should be better utilized to support production in state.
Ranked one of the most conservative members of the House, she says she also voted with President Trump 95% of the time.
Though she voted not to certify the 2020 presidential election results, she described the mayhem on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol as “thuggery” that shouldn’t go unpunished.
“What began as a day dedicated to deliberating over our election process quickly turned into one of the darkest days in our nation’s history,” she said in a statement then, adding: “President Trump’s unpresidential remarks today makes it hard to vote to object.”
In another recent campaign stop in Troy, about 10 people showed up to meet Hartzler at Cornerstone Coffee and Confections.
The owner, Kim Silverberg, said Hartzler’s congressional staff has tried to help her bring home two children she and her husband adopted from Uganda. They are still hung up in the process.
“They got to the bottom of why the State Department was telling us no,” said Silverberg, 59. “She was the only one who offered to help, and I am not even in her district.”
“That’s why we are here, is to help people,” Hartzler told her.
She said there is more work to do.
“I want to build up a movement of Missourians who want to take our country back,” she said. “We have the heartland values the country needs.”
She reiterated her commitment to the unborn, telling reporters that the only exception to abortion is for the health of the mother.
What about in cases of rape and incest?
“It’s a very tough situation,” she said. “I am very supportive of pregnancy care centers. They come alongside mothers and help them, but I don’t believe any child deserves to die because of the sins of the father.”
Asked about being one of the only women in the race, she said: “I’ve always hoped and thought that people will vote for me because I am the best qualified, not because of my gender.”
She expected the Republican primary to be a close race to the finish. There are campaign stops ahead.
“We are earning votes one person at a time by going all over the state visiting with people,” she said.