In this Missouri county, Republicans go to ‘war’ over who can run as a Republican

No one blinks when Republicans and Democrats go to battle with each other. But eyebrows and tempers rise when the fight turns inward.

That is precisely what is happening now in rural Vernon County, Missouri, some 90 minutes south of Kansas City, where the Vernon County Republican Committee is headed to circuit court on Tuesday against the county clerk — a Republican — over who gets to determine who runs for office and call themselves a Republican.

As fights go, this one has turned nasty.

Leading the charge on one side is Cyndia Haggard, a self-described pro-Trump, MAGA Republican and election denier who in 2023 appealed to the court for clemency for a Vernon County man convicted of breaking into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020, dressed in a Revolutionary War costume.

“One hundred percent,” Haggard told The Star last week, “the 2020 election was stolen.”

The chairwoman of the county’s Republican Committee, Haggard is also president of another organization, the Republican Association of Central Committees of MO, which holds that too many “fake Republicans” or RINOS (Republicans in name only) are being allowed to run for office under the Republican banner.

“RINOs,” the organization’s website states beneath a photo of a rhinoceros in a suit, “are like a virus that infects & destroys our party’s values.”

As such, the group has been promoting extensive vetting of prospective candidates before they are allowed — by a county’s Republican party committee — to run as a Republican. The vetting includes a 25-question “values survey” to be graded on a pass/fail basis.

“We are at war to save our party,” says the group’s website, which bears Haggard’s name. “That’s not an overstatement.

“Legislators ignore us. They kowtow to lobbyist interests. Fake Republicans have filed under the Republican banner for years. No one in the Republican leadership says a word. No one stops them. WE. WILL.”

Because the case on Tuesday involves Vernon County officials, it is being heard before Judge Gayle L. Crane of Jasper County Circuit Court. The scope of the case is narrow. It does not directly involve the issue of vetting, per se, but it does center on who has the right to determine who can run as a Republican candidate.

The webpage of the Republican Association of Central Committees of MO calls for vetting of candidates and declares “war” against “fake Republicans” or RINOs, Republicans in name only.
The webpage of the Republican Association of Central Committees of MO calls for vetting of candidates and declares “war” against “fake Republicans” or RINOs, Republicans in name only.

Republicans take Republicans to court

In March, the Vernon County Republican Committee filed what is known as a writ of mandamus through their attorney, Mark McCloskey, to, in effect, compel the Vernon County clerk, Adrienne Lee, to do what they believe to be her public duty.

McClosky, a personal injury lawyer, is popular in conservative circles as a podcast host. In 2020, he and his wife, Patricia, gained instant notoriety when, during the Black Lives Matter protests, they emerged from their affluent St. Louis home brandishing weapons to ostensibly project themselves from the protesters.

In the filing, the plaintiff maintains that, just like a club is allowed to determine who its members are, the Vernon County Republican Committee is “solely responsible” in the county for determining who may run for office under the Republican banner.

The county clerk, they insist, went beyond her authority when, in February, she took the filing fees from several candidates who were rejected by the committee and told them that their names would be placed on the Republican primary ballot in August.

Four individuals were initially named in the suit. All are current Republican office holders: Vernon County Administrator Kelsey Westerhold, County Treasurer Brent Barnes, County Assessor Lena Kleeman and Rich Hill Police Chief Michael Buehler, running forcounty sheriff. All refused to go through the committee’s vetting process. Four others have since been added to the suit.

The committee’s interpretation of state law is that, while the county clerk can take a filing fee, those checks are then passed on to the party committees. They argue that it is ultimately up to a the political parties — Republican or Democrat — whether to accept or reject those fees and accept or reject any particular candidate. In this case, they did not accept those candidates and did not cash their checks. Thus the candidates’ names should be taken off the ballot, the committee argued.

“The whole purpose of the vetting program is to verify that people who run as Republicans adhere to Republican values and principle and aren’t merely putting an ‘R’ behind their name so they can get elected,” McCloskey told The Star. “We believe the courts have backed us up — that a party should have the exclusive right to determine who gets to run under that party’s banner.”

The litigation, Haggard said, “is about one thing only: Did the county clerk overstep her authority by putting people on the ballot that we have rejected?”

‘What the law is’

Travis Elliott, w ith the Springfield firm Ellis, Ellis, Hammons & Johnson, is representing the county clerk. He argues that she followed the law. She did her job. The prospective candidates submitted their fee to the court and, per state law, she forwarded them to the central committee.

“We are not talking about what the law should be, we’re talking about what the law is,” he said. “Our position is basically that the county clerk is in the position of wanting there to be free and fair elections, not taking sides, and there being integrity in the election process.”

In Vernon County’s political corners, the issue of a small committee controlling the process is being met with great umbrage.

“I can tell you that I’m very against it,” said Shelly Baldwin, a Republican in her second term as Vernon County recorder. “Every elected official is against it. … They’re dictating who can and can’t run. She (Haggard) tells you that that’s not true. I mean, you have to go take a survey, she calls it. But it’s a test, because you have to pass it. I don’t know of any other survey you have to pass.

“She picks and chooses who she has on the committee. They didn’t even get elected to those positions.”

Some worry over the makeup of the committee, noting that one member is Dan Gayman, whom the Anti-Defamation League identified as the leader of the Church of Israel, based in Schell City.

“He has popularized the ‘two seedline’ theory … which purports that Jews descend from a sexual union between Eve and Satan (only white Christians descend from Adam and Eve),” the Anti-Defamation League has stated for years. “He has been credited with inspiring such groups and figures as The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord … and Eric Rudolph, who pleaded guilty to bombing three abortion clinics, a gay nightclub, and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.”

On its website, the church’s mission statement says that among its immediate goals: “To Call the Covenant People of Jehovah God to repentance! … To promote the increase of spiritual strength and physical size of the Christian family. To encourage large families, home birthing, Christian education, moral and ethnic purity, and obedience to the commandments and other laws of the Living God.”

Haggard confirmed that members of the Church of Israel are part of the committee, but argues that any members’ religious affiliation is not relevant to their work with the Vernon County Republican Party.

“There have been a lot of hit pieces leveled at us from those who don’t want vetting and think it’s OK to just be vicious and hateful toward individuals or religions or whatever,” Haggard said. “We do have people on our committee from that church. We also have people on our committee from the Catholic Church.

“I’m sure you know the Catholic Church has a pedophile problem. So is that a problem for us? I get real resentful real fast when people start tying to say, ‘Well, this religion is OK and that religion isn’t.’ I don’t belong to any church. But I support the First Amendment right of everyone to have freedom of religion.

“I typically tell people who get angry or hateful about the Church of Israel, ‘Why don’t you just give me a list of approved churches or religions.’ Catholics got this pedophile thing. There’s people who don’t like Baptists. So should we excommunicate them from our committee as well?”

Missouri State Sen. Bill Eigel, at center, currently running for governor, supports vetting of Republican candidates. He made national news last year saying he would use a flame thrower to burn what he deemed to be inappropriate books.
Missouri State Sen. Bill Eigel, at center, currently running for governor, supports vetting of Republican candidates. He made national news last year saying he would use a flame thrower to burn what he deemed to be inappropriate books.

Vetting candidates

Haggard also argues that the vetting does not keep anyone from running for office, it just keeps certain individuals from running as Republicans. Others can run as Democrats, independents or under any other party affiliation.

“It’s not going away,” she said of vetting.

Statewide, some 300 Republicans seeking office have either agreed to or sought out vetting. The Republican Association of Central Committees of MO website lists an array of “Republican Values Approved Vetted 2024” candidates for multiple state offices, including governor.

Gubernatorial candidate Jay Ashcroft, Missouri’s current secretary of state, has been vetted by the group, as have candidates Chris Wright and Bill Eigel, a Missouri state senator, who last year made national headlines after a video of him handling a flamethrower at a fundraiser went viral.

“In the video, I am taking a flame thrower to cardboard boxes representing what I am going to do to the leftist policies and RINO corruption of the Jeff City swamp,” Eigel told The Star at the time. “But let’s be clear, you bring those woke pornographic books to Missouri schools to try to brainwash our kids, and I’ll burn those too — on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion.”