- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Two Republicans vying to become their party’s nominee for Missouri attorney general are waging one of the state’s most hotly-contested primary campaigns, slamming each other with attack ads in a race that also includes lawsuits and ethics complaints.

The slugfest between state Sen. Kurt Schaefer and political novice Josh Hawley, a University of Missouri law professor on leave to campaign, has become expensive, bankrolled by mega-donors. Hawley’s bid has received more than $2.2 million from southwestern Missouri businessman David Humphreys and his family, while retired St. Louis investor Rex Sinquefield has given more than $750,000 directly to Schaefer’s campaign after he announced plans to run for the office in 2013. Political action committees financially supported by Sinquefield have given Schaefer more than $2 million in cash and in-kind contributions.

Voters will decide between the two during the Aug. 2 primary, with the winner advancing to face either former Cass County prosecutor Teresa Hensley or St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, both Democrats, in the Nov. 8 general election. Republicans hope to seize the office for the first time in more than two decades. If elected, Hensley would be Missouri’s first female to hold the job, which pays $116,000 per year job.

The current attorney general, Democrat Chris Koster, is running to replace Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who is barred by term limits from running.

The attorney general prosecutes consumer fraud, is a watchdog for nursing homes, handles appeals of felony criminal cases and defends against challenges to state laws, among other duties.

The race has featured months of rancor between Hawley, in his first run for public office, and former Missouri assistant attorney general Schaefer.

The Missouri Ethics Commission is investigating a nonprofit foundation’s complaint alleging that Schaefer, using his position as the Senate Appropriations Committee’s chairman, pressured University of Missouri system administrators to prevent Hawley from opposing him. Schaefer has denied that.

In May, Schaefer supporter and former GOP state lawmaker Kevin Elmer sued in hopes of getting University of Missouri emails by Hawley to examine whether university officials improperly helped Hawley’s campaign and whether Hawley used university computers for campaign business. Hawley’s campaign has called the lawsuit “frivolous” and a distraction from Schaefer’s “serious legal and ethical problems.”

More recently, a Schaefer attack ad accused Hawley of working for terrorists, citing Hawley’s work in representing the Iranian group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq in its efforts to get off the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. The group carried out a series of bombings and assassinations against Iran’s clerical regime in the 1980s and fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces in the Iran-Iraq war, but renounced violence in 2001 and was removed from the U.S. list in 2012.

Former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey and John Bolton, a former United Nations ambassador and an assistant U.S. attorney general, have called the ad untrue.

In his own ads, Hawley uses old footage of Schaefer describing himself as moderate, something Schaefer now denies. A super PAC ad that separately accuses Schaefer of backing legislation that allowed Chinese ownership of Missouri farmland ends with the announcer asking, “Whose side is he on?” Schaefer calls that ad “ridiculous,” adding that the change in state law to allow pork interest Smithfield Foods to sell its 42,000 Missouri acres to a Hong Kong-based enterprise “wasn’t even my bill, and it passed overwhelmingly.”

Schaefer argues that unlike Hawley, he has prosecuted cases, saying his rival “doesn’t really have any relevant experience.” Hawley counters that no prosecutorial background is required because the attorney general serves as an appellate lawyer, and he has appeals experience.

To Hawley, Schaefer’s campaign is “scurrilous,” ”in the gutter” and “the sleaziest in Missouri politics.”

Zimmerman, the Democrat, said he finds it “awfully disappointing that the folks on the other side argue about who loves terrorists more, who’s more American and whatever other nonsense.”

“What this office is not about is a platform for partisan mudslinging and ideological warfare,” said Zimmerman, a former state lawmaker and assistant attorney general who, if elected, expects to weed out corruption and strongly advocate for senior citizens and other vulnerable Missouri residents.

Hensley, Cass County’s prosecutor from 2005 until losing her re-election bid in November 2014, ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2002 and a congressional seat in 2012.

Likening the GOP sparring to “3-year-old tantrums,” she said the only elected prosecutor running for attorney general, having obtained convictions in all of her 21 murder cases and prosecuted hundreds of cases involving child abuse and sexual assault. As attorney general, she said she would press for special courts statewide with alternative sentencing programs “so we’re not filling the jails with folks who have mental health and drug issues.”

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