The many fights of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt

Eric Schmitt wants you to know he’s a fighter. That he fights, that he’s in the fight and won’t back down. The Missouri attorney general, who grew up near the airport and earned a reputation in state government as a courteous, open-minded Republican, now spits rhetorical fire at every opportunity on Fox News, where he often appears to discuss his lawsuits: against China for the COVID-19 outbreak, against schools for mask mandates, against the Biden administration for you name it. Schmitt deploys the language of combat on social media, too. Since announcing in March 2021 that he would seek higher office—a seat in the U.S. Senate—he has posted variations of the word “fight” at least 342 times on his personal Twitter account alone, touting, for example, his fight “against the Democrats who are hell-bent on destroying our country.” He hammers home the message with me in mid-March, when we meet up for beers and discuss not just how he fights, but also what exactly he’s trying to win in the end.

Folks take note when Schmitt strides through the rear entrance of The Village Bar & Restaurant, a divey institution on Manchester Road in Des Peres. This is because (a) he’s a 6-foot-6 former college football and baseball player; (b) he comes here often enough to know the staff, whom he chats with briefly; and (c) he exudes an affable frat-guy energy, glad-handing his way to our corner table, where his press aide has left him a dewing Busch Light. True to his friends’ descriptions, he does come off as “down-to-earth.” Twice during our interview, one older gentleman will come over and interrupt us, praising Schmitt for a recent appearance on local conservative radio and promising in a low voice: “You have my vote.” When the man departs for good, Schmitt grins at me and says, “I bet you want to know how much I paid that guy.”

Schmitt turns 47 in June. His dark blond hair and blue eyes may be a legacy of his German ancestors, who he says began hacking at the soil of central Missouri five generations ago. His grandfather was a butcher. Schmitt’s father, who labored for decades at Anheuser-Busch, would take his son downtown to ball games—sparking Schmitt’s ongoing, near-religious devotion to the Cardinals—and would also, back at home, sit with him and watch political pundits battle it out on CNN’s Crossfire. By that point, the young Eric had already written a get-well message to President Ronald Reagan after Reagan was shot and had received a thank-you note from the White House. (This note is now framed and hanging in the Attorney General’s office.) Yet the first politician whose words Schmitt remembers really resonating was Jack Kemp, co-architect of the Reagan tax cuts. “I grew up in an area where there were a lot of Democrats around,” he recalls of his youth in Bridgeton. “I would get into debates with my friends’ parents about tax cuts.”

Schmitt draws a straight line from those days to the present, arguing that he’s always been a conservative who prefers low taxes, small government, and state solutions over federal ones. And indeed, in the state Senate, he championed tax relief, a reining in of traffic fines and fees collected by municipalities, and state-mandated insurance coverage for children with autism (a group that includes Schmitt’s own son).

One thing that’s quantifiably changed, however, is Schmitt’s rhetoric about his opponents. Whereas he posted the words “radical left,” “tyranny,” or “tyrant(s),” only twice on Twitter in the year leading up to his campaign launch, the year after, he used those words more than 100 times. This is a reaction, he claims, to Democrats’ ascent in Washington, D.C., and overreach in the pandemic era. The left is not merely wrong, he now says; they are “obsessed with power and control,” and the stakes could not be higher. “I think that this really is a fight to save America, and I don’t mean that rhetorically,” he said on Glenn Beck’s radio show in August. “I mean it very practically. I think the republic is truly on the line.” In February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he adapted a phrase used by the National Rifle Association while alluding to the possibility of internal armed struggle: “If the left wants to remake America, they’re gonna have to take it from our cold, dead hands.” The audience stood, cheered, and chanted “U-S-A.”

All of this from a man whom many Democrats here in town once considered a receptive friend. “I thought he was a more moderate St. Louis Republican out there fighting for the right reasons,” says Democratic strategist Mike Kelley. “To watch him sell his soul to the MAGA [Make America Great Again] crowd has been somewhat sad to watch.” In the op-ed pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Kansas City Star, even in the pleadings filed by opposing counsel in his many lawsuits, the consensus among critics is clear: Schmitt has politicized his office and is just pandering to the base to win more power. Only Republicans can win statewide elections in Missouri anymore, the thinking goes, so for Schmitt to do so, he must first win over a plurality of GOP primary voters, and those voters are disgusted, afraid, and spoiling for a fight.

“I feel like I fight for things,” Schmitt tells me that day at The Village Bar.

He certainly has the mandate and resources to do so. In 2020, he says, he made no bones about his conservative platform and was elected by 59 percent of voters. Now he leads a taxpayer-funded law firm 186 lawyers strong. Like all attorneys general, Schmitt has a duty to zealously protect the rights and interests of the state as he sees fit. It’s no surprise that Democrats dislike his way of doing it. But no state statute instructs him to demonize and claim dominance over less powerful Missourians with whom he disagrees. Schmitt has done that, too, in certain cases, his critics say, which raises a question: Does being a fighter for certain constituents now mean that you need to strongarm others?

In August 2004, Schmitt drove up to a stoplight feeling so smitten with the precious cargo in his care—his infant son, Stephen—that he feared cross traffic might not stop. He was a 29-year-old lawyer at the time, departing the hospital with his first child and his wife, Jaime. (The couple had begun dating as students at what’s now called Truman State University and married while Schmitt was still earning his J.D. at Saint Louis University.) They settled in at home with the baby. His leg had a white birthmark shaped like an angel’s wing, so months later, Schmitt took him to the dermatologist to get that checked out. The doctor put Stephen under a special light. The light revealed many more marks.

Stephen, it turned out, had tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC), a rare genetic disease, as well as autism and intractable epilepsy, which caused him to have multiple seizures a day. In 2006, the child had a seizure that lasted four hours. It was a harrowing ordeal that Schmitt would later say triggered in himself “discernment”—a term used among the Catholic priests who’d taught him at De Smet Jesuit High School. It refers to a process of figuring out one’s purpose in life. By this point, Schmitt was already an alderman in Glendale. But the problems he noticed while navigating the health care system, and meeting other families doing the same, left him wanting to affect policy at a higher level, recalls Troy Walton, a personal injury attorney and close friend of Schmitt’s since law school. “His son had a huge impact on his decision to dive in,” says Walton. In 2008, Schmitt ran for Senate in District 15 and won.

It so happened that Sen. Scott Rupp of St. Charles was already working on a bill to mandate greater insurance coverage for children with autism. Rupp got it passed out of the Senate in 2009, but—as he recalls the landscape—certain insurers opposed it and had an ally in the speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, who effectively killed it. So Rupp and Schmitt joined forces. They held rallies around the state and built a coalition of parents, organizations, and House members that proved robust enough to win passage in 2010. Schmitt’s willingness to tell his own story, Rupp says, was critical: “It wouldn’t have happened without Eric.”

After the bill passed, Schmitt stood on the Senate floor. Acknowledging his son’s presence in the capitol that day, he spoke about the advice that colleagues had offered him: Don’t get married to legislation, and don’t make it personal. But he’d struggled to follow that advice in this case, he told them. “I thought about what I might say when this bill passed,” he said, voice breaking, “and I really couldn’t think of anything that profound. But I thought of what our days are like with Stephen, and holding his hand, and leading him from place to place, and it really dawned on me that Stephen and children like Stephen have led us to this place.” He thanked the chamber and sat to collect himself. The Senate gave him a standing ovation. He waved it off, then walked out to find Stephen, who is nonverbal, and hugged him.

Schmitt would go on to become a special-needs-legislation powerhouse: He helped legalize cannabidiol oil as a treatment for epilepsy. He pushed through a bill carving out tax-free savings accounts for families of children with disabilities. He also helped arrange for Missouri to begin funding TSC research and clinical care—a big deal for the estimated 1,000 people in the state who live with it, says Kari Rosbeck, president and CEO of the national nonprofit TSC Alliance. “It’s made a tremendous difference,” says Rosbeck, pointing out that Schmitt was the first legislator in the U.S. to also be the parent of a TSC child.

But not everyone was thrilled with that insurance bill. Jane Cunningham was then the Republican senator from the district just northwest of Schmitt’s. She’d donated at least $6,700 to his campaign, knocked on doors, and “had high hopes” for him. Yet she viewed Schmitt’s bringing his family into a legislative discussion as “over-the-top pressure on his colleagues,” and for an insurance mandate, no less—a policy choice that to her felt more like Obamacare than the free market. She came to see him as a “chameleon” who changes his principles to meet his political needs of the moment.

Cunningham also came to see Schmitt as “for sale” to big donors: The PostDispatch has documented how he lobbied hard in 2011 to set up a cargo hub for Chinese companies at the St. Louis airport and did so before and after collecting thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from developer Paul McKee and related entities, who reportedly stood to benefit. “There really is not a bogeyman here,” Schmitt assured the paper at the time. His interest, he said, was brisker trade and more local jobs.

As chairman of the Senate’s committee on economic development, he filed many other bills with that same stated purpose. In 2014, for instance, he co-authored a tax cut—the first passed in a century, he boasted. (Then-governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed it, claiming that 52 percent of the savings would flow to the wealthiest 7 percent of taxpayers, but Schmitt and his confrères overrode it.)

As senator, Schmitt showed a chippy side: When the Environmental Protection Agency funded a study on propane grill emissions, he said the EPA was “out of control” and called for a “Pork Steak Rebellion” of folks barbecuing in “peaceful protest.” And on occasion, Schmitt would shout so loud on the Senate floor that the speakers would crackle. But he didn’t seem to hate Democrats. In a video to constituents, he mentioned an inscription on the chamber wall: Free and fair discussion will ever be found the firmest friend to truth. “It reminds me,” he explained, “[that] it’s important for us to respect one another, and [it] speaks to the need for a more civil tone in politics.” Schmitt had friends across the aisle. That’s how stuff got done, says Victor Callahan, a former Democratic senator from Independence. Callahan appreciated Schmitt’s grasp on policy and his knack for defusing tense negotiations with a self-deprecating wit. “I’ve always considered Eric Schmitt to be a conservative,” he says, “but when I was in the Senate, I could sit down to talk to him about any issue.”

At the same time, Schmitt’s rating with the American Conservative Union was 87 out of 100 in his final years. He also earned an “A” rating in the same period from United for Missouri, a conservative group advocating for limited government. Carl Bearden, its founder and CEO, viewed Schmitt as acting within Senate norms and constraints. “Unfortunately, a lot of people think compromise is bad,” says Bearden. “It’s not, as long as you know where you can compromise, and [Schmitt] had a good sense of that.”

Schmitt’s signature victory in these years, for instance, enjoyed nearly unanimous bipartisan support in his chamber: Senate Bill 5. The idea was born out of the Ferguson unrest, which revealed (among other things) how some small municipalities in North County were raking in an illegally high proportion of their general revenue from traffic tickets and minor infractions—“taxation by citation,” as Schmitt phrased it. Fines-and-fees revenue, under Missouri law, was already capped at 30 percent of a muni’s general revenue, but that cap was rarely enforced. Schmitt’s bill lowered the cap to 12.5 percent in St. Louis and beefed up accountability. It also sought to eliminate “debtors’ prisons” wherein people who couldn’t pay fines sat in jail. “Government should exist to serve its citizens,” he said after the bill’s passage, “not to extort them.” (By some measures, SB5 is working as Schmitt intended: Among the eight munis that in 2013 had illegal fines-and-fees percentages, six were in compliance with the new cap in their most recent reports.)

Schmitt has said that late at night, on breaks from Senate business, he’d wander the halls of Missouri’s capitol. It was quiet at night. He’d stroll. Look at composites of Missouri General Assemblies from decades past. Read the names. Not recognize the vast majority of them. But he felt those photos documented something special.

What those legislators stood for, he explained in a 2012 commencement speech at his alma mater, was a willingness to toil for the benefit of strangers. “Don’t be a cynic,” he urged the Truman State graduates that day, standing at a podium in full academic regalia. “Run for office; just don’t run against me.” He smiled. The crowd laughed. “Serve on a community board. Volunteer at a soup kitchen during Thanksgiving. Organize a work day on some Saturday morning to help somebody you’ve never met, build a house with Habitat for Humanity.” (Schmitt himself, back in the ’90s, had launched the Habitat chapter on that very campus.) His conclusion: Work for something greater than yourself. Such a mindset is “not tied to being a Republican or being a Democrat, or being conservative or being liberal, or being rich or being poor,” he said. “It’s the fabric that binds us all together.”

In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency. Schmitt won the treasurer’s race that same day. But two years later, a plum position opened up. The midterm elections that proved a boon to Democrats across the country turned out differently in the Show-Me State: Josh Hawley, a Republican then serving as Missouri attorney general, won the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Claire McCaskill, the incumbent Democrat, by nearly six points. This victory bolstered the claim that Missouri was fast becoming a red state. It also meant that the Republican governor Mike Parson could appoint a new attorney general. He tapped Schmitt.

There was no partisan gloating at Schmitt’s swearing-in on January 3, 2019—an event attended by Jaime, Stephen, and Stephen’s two younger sisters, Sophia and Olivia. On the contrary, Schmitt referred to the oath of office he’d just taken as a “sacred charge” to defend the constitutions of Missouri and the United States, pointing out: “There isn’t anything in that oath about politics or political party.”

Schmitt’s job description as attorney general is a bit vague, statute-wise. He swears to “support” the state and national constitutions. He must file civil suits (and defend against those brought by others) to “protect the rights and interests of the state.” But nowhere does Missouri law say—or even imply—that he’s the apex crime-fighter, observes Mike Wolff, former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. Rather, it says that local elected prosecutors bring “all criminal actions” while Schmitt’s office handles only the felony appeals. Yet Schmitt announced in his third week on the job that he was the state’s “chief law enforcement officer.” “I cannot stand idly by as communities and lives are torn apart by violence,” he said at a press conference—and indeed, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department had just reported the previous year’s totals: 186 homicides and 350 carjackings.

Thus he launched the Safer Streets Initiative. It may’ve been a first nationwide, says Jeff Jensen, who was then the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Missouri. Schmitt’s idea was to cross-designate his state-paid assistants to help Jensen’s office go after violent federal crime. After a year, they’d indicted 131 defendants in that district alone. Jensen remembers it as a “tremendous” boost and Schmitt’s motivation as sincere. This was just a start: Schmitt would later direct subordinates to help clear the state’s backlog of untested reported-sexual-assault kits—a push that’s resulted in at least three prosecutions—and to set up a cold-case homicide unit.

Schmitt also found a way to be seen as a law-and-order guy during his first year. In some circumstances, the Attorney General’s Office assists local prosecutors, so when St. Louis circuit attorney Kim Gardner reported a conflict of interest in the case against Antonio Muldrew, a man charged with first-degree murder, Schmitt’s office took over—and Schmitt himself showed up downtown in January 2020 to help try the case in person. He wanted to “roll up his sleeves” and be part of the solution, explained his staff, who also persuaded the judge to allow cameras in the courtroom. A news photographer captured Schmitt in a dark suit, ticking off arguments on his fingers during his opening statement. “This week,” he wrote on Twitter, “I was in St. Louis city prosecuting a cold blooded killer.”

Such burnishing of prosecutorial credentials is not unheard of, observes Jim Layton, who served for about two decades as solicitor general—the lawyer who represents the state in appellate and national matters. Now of counsel at Tueth Keeney, Layton says both of Schmitt’s Democratic predecessors, Jay Nixon and Chris Koster, prosecuted cases in person—and that the joke in Jeff City used to be that “AG” stood for “aspiring governor.”

Yet Layton did arch his eyebrows six months later when Schmitt departed from a long-standing norm by second-guessing a local prosecutor. In June, attorneys Mark and Patricia McCloskey went viral online for brandishing guns at Black Lives Matter demonstrators outside the couple’s home on a private drive in the Central West End. In response, Gardner charged them with unlawful use of a weapon—and Schmitt’s office filed an amicus brief urging dismissal. Schmitt’s argument: The right to bear arms in defense of oneself and one’s property is fundamental, and the “mere pendency” of such a case would “intimidate and deter others” from exercising that right. Layton took to Twitter, calling Schmitt’s brief “a truly extraordinary act” whose logic could compel his office to intervene in many other cases. The brief also drew criticism from St. Charles’ top prosecutor, Tim Lohmar, who was then the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. He told Missouri Lawyers Weekly that his group was “disappointed that the attorney general has chosen to insert himself into a decision that is vested with the local elected official.” But Schmitt was unbowed. “The charges being brought here amount to nothing more than a political prosecution,” Schmitt said, speaking on Fox News.

Two weeks later, Schmitt ran unopposed in the Republican primary. He then sailed to victory over Democrat Rich Finneran in the November general election. He even won more votes in Missouri than Trump did—not that he’d ever crow about that. The power dynamic between them was clear in an anecdote that Schmitt tells about visiting the White House in the fall of 2020: Schmitt brought a photo of them together and got Trump to sign it in the Oval Office. (“It’s ‘Eric’ with a C, right?” Trump reportedly asked. “You know, my son’s name is Eric.”)

Trump, however, lost the 2020 election—then insisted it had been stolen from him, despite being told otherwise by his own appointees at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. According to one preliminary tally by Marc Elias, a Democratic election lawyer, Trump and his allies filed 62 post-election legal challenges nationwide and lost 61 of them. Two challenges had enjoyed Schmitt’s material support: One brought by Texas and another by Republicans in Pennsylvania. In those cases, Schmitt’s office authored amicus briefs joined by many other states. Both suits ended up failing, but in November and December, Schmitt tweeted about them and election integrity a dozen times from his personal account.

He had less to say when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. That riot left the building vandalized and about 140 law enforcement officers with reported injuries, according to the findings of a bipartisan Senate committee. Schmitt posted exactly one tweet condemning January 6: “Every American has a right to peacefully protest but violence and lawlessness simply cannot be tolerated. Please join me in praying for the Capitol Police and other law enforcement today in Washington DC.”

During our interview  at The Village Bar in March, I ask Schmitt if he now believes, looking back, that the election was stolen. He refers me to his Texas and Pennsylvania briefs. (They argued, among other things, that the U.S. Constitution tasks state legislatures with crafting election laws, and that in certain states, other actors encroached on their authority.) So I ask him whether he believes that his briefs contributed to the “Stop the Steal” narrative and January 6. “I think it was a very important thing to stand up at that time,” he says. “And so, like I said, I’m never going to change that position, and I’ll leave it at that.” Then I ask whether he believes that Trump has any responsibility for January 6. He says, “No, look: People make their own decisions.”

By contrast, other Republicans, including those at the highest levels—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy—assigned responsibility to Trump for January 6, at least at first. Rich Lowry, editor-in-chief of the conservative magazine The National Review, wrote on January 15 that Trump had “led his most committed supporters into a box canyon of lies and conspiracy theories after the election because he couldn’t admit that he lost.” In Lowry’s view, “throwing aside truth and the law in pursuit of a second term…is not really fighting. It is giving up.”

Eleven weeks after January 6, Schmitt announced his run for Senate and released a campaign video. In it, he boasted that he’d “stood up for President Trump” in the 2020 election. He described himself as “Missouri’s law-and-order attorney general.”

No sphere of American life has proved more target-rich for Schmitt than the pandemic—and he’s taken some shots that other Republicans haven’t.

A month into the crisis, he sued China. He was the first attorney general to do so; only his counterpart in Mississippi followed him into the breach. Schmitt blasted China, its Communist Party, and related entities for “an appalling campaign of deceit, concealment, misfeasance, and inaction” that “unleashed” the pandemic. Regardless of the merits, the petition is likely doomed, according to legal analysts, because foreign states and their instrumentalities enjoy “sovereign immunity” under federal law. George Bermann, a professor at Columbia Law School, tells SLM that it’s “highly uncommon” for a state to recover damages against such defendants. (At press time, no counsel for China had entered an appearance, and the judge seemed inclined to transfer the matter to the U.S. district court in D.C.)

Then, in 2021, Schmitt went after the Biden administration’s attempt to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for health care workers and others. Schmitt’s critics cried “flip-flop”: As a state senator in 2014, he’d voted to require college students living on Missouri campuses to get a meningitis vaccine. But that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, Schmitt maintains: Among other differences, he says, the meningitis vaccine mandate flowed from a state legislature, as opposed to a Biden executive order or agency rule—and, as many of Schmitt’s filings attest, he’s a staunch believer in state power and the 10th Amendment as a bulwark against federal overreach. Still, it’s noteworthy what Schmitt won’t say on this topic. He could, after all, oppose mandates while still encouraging folks to get vaccinated. Hawley and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt have taken this approach. So too have Schmitt’s rivals in the Senate race, U.S. Reps. Billy Long and Vicky Hartzler. Yet in interviews with SLM, Schmitt declines to do so. His oft-repeated line: People should be free to choose for themselves. I ask him whether Missouri would have better health outcomes if everyone freely chose to get vaccinated. He says giving people the freedom to choose “is the goal in and of itself.” So I ask: Do vaccines work? He says, “I think people can make that decision themselves.”

He takes a similar line on school mask mandates: that parents alone should decide whether their kids mask up. Weren’t the parents, I ask, the ones who elected the school boards that, in most cases, enacted the mandates? Yes, he replies, but if those elected bodies overstep the authority granted them by the state, then he, as attorney general, must step in. He denies that attacking mandates is forcing people to live by his preferences, saying, “I’m not exerting my will.”

To some of the targeted school districts, though, it sure felt like an exertion of will.

Schmitt sent all Missouri districts a letter on December 7. It said they “should stop enforcing and publicizing” mask mandates. A judge in Cole County, he explained, had struck down mandates enacted by local health authorities.

To be clear, that judge’s order never explicitly struck down mandates enacted by school boards, nor did it explicitly tell districts to take action. But Schmitt’s letter implied that districts needed to act, warning that “failure to follow the court’s judgment may result in enforcement action against you.” A post on his Facebook page that day explained that he was “requiring” districts to comply with his advice.

On December 8, he called on parents to act as informants. “Email videos, pictures or any other documentation related to this matter to,” he posted on social media. The next day, he fired off a second letter to districts. “I hereby demand,” he wrote, “that you immediately cease and desist enforcement of any and all mandates” that violate the state constitution. He vowed to “engage the full resources” of his office against such measures.

These threats didn’t sit well with communities such as the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District in the Kansas City area. That district’s legal counsel, Joe Hatley of Spencer Fane, wrote in a December 10 letter and subsequent court filings that Schmitt had been “intentionally misleading” and “attempted to give the impression that he had the authority to order school districts to take particular actions, even though no law gave him that power.” Hatley cited the repeated rulings by Missouri courts that an attorney general’s opinions carry no more weight than those of any other competent lawyer. Hatley also told of parents showing up at schools with copies of Schmitt’s letter, “threatening principals and teachers who refused to abide by it.”

In the St. Louis area, similar drama unfolded. “There was heightened angst and anger,” recalls Chris Gaines, superintendent of the Mehlville School District. “Parents were coming in, saying, ‘The AG says this, and the AG says this.’” At one point, an officer of the Arnold Police Department took matters into his own hands. A security video obtained by KSDK Channel 5 showed the officer standing at the open door of a Rockwood School District bus on December 10, gun in his holster, telling the masked bus driver, “I’m going to report you, OK?… There’s an executive order by Eric Schmitt saying you cannot wear a mask.” When the driver pulled away, her hand was shaking.

The irony: By December 2021, many St. Louis districts were preparing to go mask-optional, says Paul Ziegler, executive director of EducationPlus, an educational-services nonprofit that works with 54 public districts in the area. Ziegler was part of “the school work group,” a team of superintendents, doctors, and public health officials. They met via Zoom on Thursday mornings. Tracking local data and published research, they tried to come up with guidance. “Omicron,” says Ziegler, “was a game-changer.”

That variant, which peaked in the second half of January, proved more contagious than previous strains of the virus. A rising number of pupils and school staff were testing positive, then staying home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended such a response, plus universal masking for those 2 years old and up, as part of a “layered” mitigation approach. Many districts adopted both. “We don’t want kids in masks,” Ziegler says. “We don’t want to be in masks. But if it helps keep schools open and kids safe, we’re going to continue to do it.” There was a fear in the group that ditching masks would not only force a return to remote learning—which nobody wanted—but also drive community spread and push hospitals over capacity. State data shows that by late January, 89 percent of ICU beds in the region were full.

Population-wide, however, omicron proved less severe, a CDC study said, likely because more people were vaccinated. And as a group, Missouri’s 1.4 million children weathered it relatively well: Even near the crest of the wave, in mid-January, Missouri hospitals admitted an average of 24 kids with COVID per week—about as many as those with the flu, federal and state data showed. Continuing to mask kids raised an “ethical question,” wrote New York Times senior writer David Leonhardt in his newsletter, “The Morning”: “Should children suffer to protect unvaccinated adults — who are voluntarily accepting Covid risk for themselves and increasing everybody else’s risk, too?” A growing number of people in the Show-Me State appeared to be souring on school mandates: A poll by the political news service Missouri Scout showed that a slight majority of respondents opposed them. While the CDC had found “no clear evidence that masking impairs emotional or language development in children,” studies from Italy and Greece suggested it might.

“To say there’s no harm at all [in mask-wearing] is foolish,” says Dr. Rachel Orscheln, a member of the work group and the director of ambulatory pediatric infectious diseases at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Of course there’s a downside. But it was meant to avoid long absences from in-person school. And being in school, for some kids, is about being in a safe place, or getting a meal. So it’s always a trade-off.”

Such a trade-off makes sense only if universal masking in schools helps block the virus’ spread. The CDC had reviewed the research and found that it does. Schmitt found otherwise. In late January, when he began suing the districts, he cited The Urgency of Normal, a network of doctors and scientists who’d concluded that studies on school masking lacked proper controls or failed to show a clear benefit. Schmitt’s legal argument, though, was about power. State law, he insisted, doesn’t let districts force masks on pupils. Hatley and his team, in a filing for Lee’s Summit, called this “balderdash.” They pointed to statutes that grant districts both broad powers and specific ones, such as the ability to set dress codes. Requiring masks, they wrote, is like requiring shoes.

All told, Schmitt filed suits against 47 school districts to stop their mandates, his office says. In the majority of cases, one or more parents joined him as plaintiffs. Some parents chose only to write to his special email address, according to records obtained through a Sunshine request. While many correspondents stood up for the mandates, cussed Schmitt out, or added his account to sex-toy mailing lists, many caregivers thanked him. Multiple parents lamented that their kids suffered from asthma but got no accommodation. One mother in the Kirkwood School District wrote that her 6-year-old, who was attending a new school, faced “constant challenges about friends not hearing her and misunderstanding her, to the point where she cries after school.” The mother continued: “In no way am I saying masks must go, but I am saying: Let parents decide that with mask-optional policies.”

In at least 21 districts, no parents joined Schmitt’s suits. Hancock Place was one such district. Nestled up against the city’s southern boundary, in Lemay, Hancock has only 1,450 students, all of whom qualify for federal reduced-price lunch. The superintendent, Kevin Carl, says he felt disappointed in Schmitt’s tactics. “Not once did the Attorney General’s Office reach out to find out what’s going on in Lemay and Hancock,” he says. “We have differences of opinion within our staff and community, but we’ve learned to navigate those in a way that makes sense for us. So for someone outside to tell us what we need to do deviates from local control.”

But Schmitt made clear on Twitter how he felt about school officials who backed mandates. These weren’t well-intentioned folks who got it wrong. Without caveat or exception, he called them “paranoid and power obsessed bureaucrats and politicians” who were “using kids to virtue signal.” On February 5, he wrote: “To all the educrats who support this unscientific nonsense—the public doesn’t support your tyranny and punishing of kids.” At The Village Bar, I ask Schmitt what evidence he has, policies aside, that the school board members (who are unpaid) and superintendents acted in bad faith. He appears to walk back his generalization. “I can’t speak for all of them,” Schmitt says. “I think that when they were presented with the facts and evidence and still continued to go down that road, people got tired of it.”

Some members of Schmitt’s own party have lately sounded tired of his approach. “Would I say that schools handled everything just right? Absolutely not,” Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden told reporters in April. “Would I say that probably the attorney general went a little out of his way for political purposes? Yeah, probably.” Then there’s Cunningham, a harsh critic of Schmitt who nevertheless sounds receptive to his assaults on mandates. “I can tell you: People who are strong conservatives are probably pleased by those wins,” she says.

Whether Schmitt “won” his suits against compulsory school masking is open to debate. In mid-March, he dismissed dozens of them. Districts had dropped their mandates to avoid a legal battle, or to adjust to falling COVID metrics, or both. A large number of the districts belong to a self-insurance pool, so any attorneys’ fees they incurred will raise premiums later for all members across the state, says Mark Stockwell, the pool’s executive director. “At this point, it’s not a horrendous amount,” Stockwell says. “But to me, it’s all wasted money. Most all of us believe it was just a campaign stunt—that all he was trying to do was to get his name out there.” After the wave of dismissals, Schmitt’s office put out a statement that concluded: “[We] will continue in our crusade to dislodge power from petty tyrants and return that power back to where it belongs: in the hands of parents and families.”

Schmitt’s critics impugn his motives all the time. He’s often willing to return the favor. The difference is that most of his critics aren’t running for U.S. Senate; he is. So I ask what he’d say to voters who wish for him to take the high road. “I’m doing exactly what I was elected to do,” he says—that is, to fight for individual rights and the constitution. “I don’t really get too bothered by what the critics have to say.”

His fight, then, continues. But what, in Schmitt’s mind, would winning look like? Everyone in America living by conservative dictates? Schmitt shakes his head. “I believe in this system of self-governance,” he says. “And as long as I can remember, I have had a conservative worldview. It’s not realistic to think that everyone is going to believe in that. Now, we can have a debate about things. I think trying to persuade is very important. Being open to being persuaded is also very important, and so I think trying to move forward in that direction is what this country’s all about. But I will say this: I think we are living in a very different time right now.” What’s changed, he says, is not so much him as America—and specifically, the American left, with its woke curricula in schools; with its silencing of contrary speech; with its never-ending COVID protocols. These are an insult to the American idea, he says—and an existential threat to the country that he loves. So winning, in this sense, is self-defense rather than subjugation.

If Schmitt were to criticize his own tribe’s excesses, he’d risk being labeled what Politico calls “the GOP’s dirtiest slur”: a RINO (Republican in name only). And just a few months out from the August 2 primary, he appeared to have little margin for error: Two polls in March placed him, Hartzler, and former governor Eric Greitens within a few points of one another. A big challenge for Schmitt has been name recognition, observes SLU political science professor Ken Warren. Name recognition highly correlates with votes, Warren says, but in a SLU/YouGov poll last July, 41 percent of likely Missouri voters were “unsure” about Schmitt. So the attorney general, in Warren’s view, has been trying to gain notoriety by “jumping on the Trump bandwagon.” The problem: “Not only does he want the Trump endorsement; all these candidates do.” The attack ads have already begun; more will likely follow.

So far, Schmitt has aimed his arsenal mostly at Democrats. It’s rare to hear him concede that the right shares any blame for the changes in American politics that have, in his telling, escalated his rhetoric. Maybe he thinks his fellow conservatives are blameless. Or maybe he sees their faults yet keeps mum for fear that speaking out would lose him primary votes. But his words and deeds make clear: Winning, for Eric Schmitt, means more than one thing. “I love this job,” he says of being attorney general, “and I am committed to becoming the next United States senator, so hopefully that’s my next job.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from the original version, which appeared in SLM’s June 2022 issue.

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