Bill Eigel’s abrasive speeches upended the Missouri Senate. Will GOP voters approve?

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The Republican-controlled Missouri Senate last Wednesday took a plan to limit direct democracy off the floor after a days-long Democratic filibuster, effectively killing a measure to overhaul the state’s initiative petition process for the year.

Sen. Bill Eigel had some ideas about how the official record should describe the moment, a major GOP defeat.

Rising at his desk in the Senate chamber on Thursday morning, Eigel offered an amendment to the Senate Journal to state the Senate was “interrupted by a stampeding herd of rhinoceroses running through the Senate chamber.”

Listening to the Senate this year often meant listening to the sound of Eigel’s voice.

Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican running for governor, held the floor for much of the session. Along with fellow members of the Freedom Caucus, a hard-right band of renegade Republicans, Eigel once brought the Senate to a standstill for 41 hours. It was the longest filibuster in Missouri Senate history until the Democrats broke the record during the last week of session.

Other filibusters were shorter. A few hours here and there. Perhaps a few could best be described as just a long speech. But they all put Eigel and his allies at the center of the action on the floor, and often in the media.

They talked – and talked – about anything and everything. Often they aired grievances. Republican leaders were an especially frequent target as Eigel and other Freedom Caucus members leveled various allegations of backstabbing, deception and trickery.

The Missouri General Assembly’s annual session ended on Friday – along with the Bill Eigel show that defined much of the session.

Eigel now heads into the summer campaign season, a make or break time for candidates ahead of the primary election in early August. His fiery speeches drew eyes and eyerolls inside the Capitol, but the primary election will test whether his abrasive approach on the floor proved attractive to voters.

Publicly-available polling has consistently shown Eigel lagging behind the other two major Republican candidates for governor, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. A February poll from Saint Louis University and British pollster YouGov found that Eigel was in third place among Republican voters, with 8% of Republican respondents saying they would support his campaign.

Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican.
Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican.

Allegations of betrayal

Eigel leaves a changed Senate in his wake. The filibuster is a prized tradition in the Senate and the chamber’s lore is full of past stands against legislation. Eigel pushed the tactic to new heights – or lows – as he held up bills to a degree not seen in recent history.

The Senate likes to cloak itself in gentility and civility, operating under a litany of written and unwritten customs designed to give the proceedings a sense of formality and dignity. Eigel would launch into searing attacks on senators, creating awkward scenes on the floor.

After Eigel withdrew his “rhinoceros” amendment later on Thursday, Sen. Mike Cierpiot, a Lee’s Summit Republican, offered his own change to the Journal to urge Attorney General Andrew Bailey not to use a legal defense fund to defend three hard-right state senators facing federal lawsuits over falsely posting that a man was the shooter at the Kansas City Chiefs rally shooting in February.

Cierpiot “betrayed the entire pro-life cause in the state of Missouri for a generation yesterday by derailing the initiative petition reform bill out of personal animosity,” Eigel said on the floor in response.

Once, in January, Eigel was shouting in anger as Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, a Shelbina Republican, stood at her desk next to his. As his arms moved excitedly, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, encouraged Eigel to keep his hands down and “make sure you are not pointing or making unnecessary gestures toward the female senator you are speaking to.”

During a screamed speech earlier this month, Eigel renewed his attack on GOP leadership.

“I have a lot of issues with the policies as proposed by my Democratic colleagues, but I gotta say they don’t lie to my face,” he said. “What relationship can be based on a lie?”

Eigel is leaving the Senate because of term limits, along with several other members of the Freedom Caucus. At least some observers of Missouri politics say he’s providing an example for future like-minded senators to follow.

“If they’re looking to generate attention and maybe develop a following on the farther-right portion of the Republican Party, then certainly Eigel has given them a model to follow,” Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri said.

On the other hand, “If they’re coming in with a certain set of policy goals they’re trying to move forward, that’s probably not the best way to do it.”

John Hancock, a long-time GOP consultant and a former executive director of the Missouri GOP, said historically lawmakers have built their profiles with major legislative accomplishments. But that pathway isn’t utilized as much today, with some Republicans more defined by what they blocked than what they passed.

Hancock, who is aiding Kehoe’s campaign, said the level of infighting among Republicans is similar to what he witnessed among Democrats in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the party controlled the legislature.

“I think a lot of the angst today is exacerbated by term limits. You have these members who are in the same caucus, several of whom are running against each other for various offices,” Hancock said.

Eigel and the Freedom Caucus claim they were effective. By what measure? They say their tactics pushed the Senate to take up the initiative petition overhaul, even as they blame GOP leaders for its failure.

“It was definitely in the cards to kill IP and acquiesce to the uni-party we see,” said Sen. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican who chairs the Freedom Caucus.

Sen. Rick Brattin, center, speaks to reporters. He’s joined by Sen. Denny Hoskins, left, and Sen. Bill Eigel, right.
Sen. Rick Brattin, center, speaks to reporters. He’s joined by Sen. Denny Hoskins, left, and Sen. Bill Eigel, right.

The IP overhaul represented the group’s top priority in the 2024 session. The proposal would have required future amendments to the state constitution to be approved essentially twice, a majority vote in at least five of the state’s eight congressional districts, and a majority vote statewide.

Currently, constitutional amendments only need a majority vote statewide and have been used by voters of both parties to pass policy measures when the General Assembly fails to come to an agreement.

Republicans want the change for several reasons. Some generally oppose direct democracy, some are suspicious of out-of-state influence over ballot measures and some fear voters will likely overturn the state’s abortion ban in a ballot measure expected on the November ballot.

“If we don’t do what we did and how we did it, I don’t think we’re having this conversation right now. I don’t think that we are even close to this conversation,” Eigel said on Wednesday amid the Democratic filibuster – before the vote to take the bill off the floor.

“I think that our aggressiveness on this issue absolutely is the primary driver of why we’ve gotten to this point today.”

‘Swamp creatures’

Eigel and the hard-right Freedom Caucus spent the majority of this year’s session using hardball tactics to push Republican leaders into taking up the initiative petition measure.

They read from books about famous Missourians. They attacked their Republican colleagues on social media. And in January, they held up a series of personnel appointments from Republican Gov. Mike Parson as a bargaining chip.

Senate Republican leaders were incensed by the move and tempers flared on the floor.

O’Laughlin called Eigel “the definition of narcissism.” Rowden said the Freedom Caucus’s tactics were “the biggest show of bad faith I’ve ever seen in my life.”

A few days later, Rowden stripped members of the Freedom Caucus of their committee chairmanships and highly-coveted parking spots within the Capitol. It was a punishment aimed at breaking the gridlock in the chamber as the start to the year had been “nothing short of an embarrassment,” Rowden said at the time.

“A chamber designed to be occupied with civil, principled statesmen and women has been overtaken by a small group of swamp creatures who, all too often, remind me more of my children than my colleagues,” he told reporters.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, speaks to reporters.
Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, speaks to reporters.

The disputes that began the session appeared to calm down after the Senate in February approved a version of a measure to make it harder for Missourians to amend the constitution that did not include deceptive language intended to entice voters.

But tensions later boiled over once again in the session’s final month after the House sent back its version of the legislation with the language, called “ballot candy,” included in the proposal. Eigel and the Freedom Caucus earlier this month held the floor for 41 hours, blocking a series of key taxes for Medicaid.

One of their stated goals, once again, was for Senate leaders to take up and pass the initiative petition legislation. In the end, the Freedom Caucus sat down and allowed the Medicaid taxes to pass as Republican leaders promised to debate the initiative petition measure weakening direct in the session’s final week.

As Eigel and the Freedom Caucus continued to push Republican leaders, they lost the only woman in the caucus: Sen. Jill Carter from Granby who said she disagreed with the group’s strategy.

On Friday, Carter posted on social media about “half truths on both sides and a chamber full of animosity that equaled to nothing.”

Cierpiot, who has at times been the focus of attacks from Eigel and the Freedom Caucus, said in an interview that it was the Freedom Caucus’s fault the Senate failed to pass the initiative petition plan.

“All the other stuff that we didn’t get done is really because of the Freedom Caucus and their leadership,” Cierpiot said, pointing to the hours the group spent on the floor halting legislation.

He framed the caucus’ tactics as “chaos for chaos’ sake.”

“Sometimes what they’re doing is beneficial for people running statewide,” Cierpiot said, “not so much for the people that are trying to just represent their districts.”

Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, reads a bill Missouri during the afternoon session as Missouri senators convene at the state capitol in Jefferson City Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.
Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, reads a bill Missouri during the afternoon session as Missouri senators convene at the state capitol in Jefferson City Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

Eigel said Friday that the Freedom Caucus’s approach had always been about passing GOP policy priorities. The group’s concern, he said, is that not enough Republican lawmakers have been willing to what is necessary to advance legislation.

“Ultimately, our concerns were very founded. Because as we found out this week, there were not a sufficient number of 24 Republicans,” Eigel said, referring to the number of Republican senators.

Despite the tensions some lawmakers were forced to work with the Freedom Caucus to get their priorities across the finish line. One of them was Sen. Rusty Black, a Chillicothe Republican, who was frank about the group’s perceived goal.

“If they did anything, truly, it was keep legislation from getting passed whether it’s good or bad,” he said. “Some people would consider that a pretty good conservative issue because the more stuff gets passed, normally it is taking rights away or giving people special benefits.”

As Democrats spent a record 50 hours railing against the legislation to weaken direct democracy, they warned Republicans not to side with the hard-right caucus. Doing so, they argued, would further erode the Senate’s ability to function for years to come.

“If people are rewarded for their bad behavior this year, it will proliferate next year,” Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, said on the floor. “Until my last day is here, I’m going to try to do everything I can to save this Senate.”

Rizzo and Rowden, the top Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, have for years shared a relatively positive working relationship. Rizzo indicated that he feared where the chamber was headed after he and Rowden leave office this year.

“The cooler heads in a lot of situations are leaving this chamber,” Rizzo said. “So who will win the day?