Missouri AG Eric Schmitt a no-show at Senate candidate forum with rival Busch Valentine

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, the heavy favorite to be the state’s next U.S. senator, skipped a candidate forum Friday while his Democratic rival fielded questions from journalists from around the state.

The Friday candidate forum in Lake Ozark was hosted by the Missouri Press Association.

Democratic nominee Trudy Busch Valentine stood on the stage alongside third party candidates to field questions in front of the audience of Missouri publishers and editors. The St. Louis philanthropist remains an underdog in the race with Republican nominee Schmitt as the Nov. 8 election approaches.

While Busch Valentine tried to use the forum to promote her candidacy, Schmitt’s absence overshadowed the proceedings.

Schmitt’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment about his decision to forgo the forum, which came the same week the attorney general traveled to Washington to lunch with senators and raise money.

“We think it is unfortunate that he has chosen not to participate,” Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, said in an emailed statement. “The voters in Missouri deserve to hear from all the candidates.”

At the forum Friday, Busch Valentine and the other candidates were asked questions about various hot button issues like abortion, gender identity, inflation and climate change. The Democratic nominee touted herself as the candidate with the best chance of defeating Schmitt.

“I love Missouri and I love the people of Missouri and I’m going to be the one that will beat Eric Schmitt to the Senate,” she said.

Schmitt is largely expected to keep retiring Republican Sen. Roy Blunt’s seat in GOP hands in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the chamber since 2012. A poll released late last month by St. Louis University showed the Republican attorney general with a double digit lead in the race.

Jacob Long, Busch Valentine’s communications director, in a statement Friday excoriated Schmitt for not attending Friday’s forum.

“Career politician Eric Schmitt only seems to want to communicate through frivolous lawsuits and behind podiums in safe spaces like FOX,” the statement said.

“The Missouri Press Association candidate forum has previously served as the only debate in past Senate cycles and has been the preeminent statewide debate for major races for nearly 35 years. It’s really unfortunate – but not surprising – that he was afraid to participate.”

Phill Brooks, who has worked as a statehouse reporter in Missouri for more than 50 years and is a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, said that Schmitt may have decided not to attend in order to avoid having to answer tough questions. It also could be a strategy not to lose his lead in the race and avoid elevating Busch Valentine’s candidacy, he said.

“I think part of the reason likely is because he’s concerned about potential controversial, aggressive questions,” he said.

Some of those questions would likely center around Schmitt’s decisions to sue school districts for enacting mask mandates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“Those are some pretty difficult questions for him to answer. The one thing by avoiding these forums and debates is that he avoids answering the questions.”

Friday’s forum was held at the annual Missouri Press Association Convention at The Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark. Along with Busch Valentine, Libertarian Party nominee Jonathan Dine and Constitution Party candidate Paul Venable also spoke on the stage. The organization has held similar forums since 1988.

Schmitt’s decision to skip the forum comes amid a broader disagreement on debates between the two candidates.

Earlier this month, Schmitt’s campaign accepted an invitation to a debate hosted by NexStar Media Group and he wrote on Twitter that Busch Valentine had rejected the invitation.

“Missourians will not be surprised that The Heiress Valentine is refusing to debate because they know her extreme positions only connect with a small inner circle of liberal elites, and not Missouri’s families statewide who are struggling under the disastrous Biden-Schumer economic policies she supports,” Schmitt’s campaign wrote.

Her campaign immediately responded saying they hadn’t rejected the invitation and was still looking at which debates fit their schedule.

“As usual, what Eric Schmitt is saying is nonsense,” said Long, Buch Valentine’s spokesman. “We fully expect and look forward to an opportunity to debate Eric Schmitt on the issues that matter most to Missourians. We’ve received a number of debate invitations and are actively reviewing all of them.

The jostling comes after a U.S. Senate primary where neither the major Republican candidates nor Democratic candidates agreed to share the stage. On the Republican side, Schmitt’s campaign was adamant that he would not debate unless former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens appeared.

Greitens’ campaign said the former governor would only agree to a debate if it focused solely on policy, which would have insulated him from questions about the many scandals that plagued his candidacy.

The Star’s Daniel Desrochers contributed to this story.