Final days of Missouri Senate primaries feature controversial debutante ball, tight GOP race

·Senior Writer
·7-min read
Trudy Busch at the Veiled Prophet debutante ball in 1977.
Trudy Busch was crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the Veiled Prophet debutante ball in 1977. (Bill Kesler/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris)

Ads featuring a controversial annual ball with white supremacist ties and a scandal-plagued former governor staying near the top of the polls underscore the Missouri Senate race with a week and a half until primary day.

On the Democratic side, the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Roy Blunt has settled into a contest between attorney and Marine veteran Lucas Kunce and Anheuser-Busch beer heiress Trudy Busch Valentine.

Kunce is a self-described populist who has been running a campaign focused on antitrust issues since last year, criticizing Republican policies as well as some prominent Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom he attacked over her positions on legislators trading stocks. Busch Valentine entered the race in late March, focusing on her work as a nurse, her family’s history and the importance of uniting Missourians.

Ahead of the Aug. 2 primary, Kunce has launched a new ad attacking Busch Valentine for her participation in the Veiled Prophet Ball — an event, more than a century old, that was founded by former Confederate officers, with costumes resembling Ku Klux Klan robes. The organization behind the event, now known as Fair Saint Louis, did not allow Jewish or Black members until 1979. A 2014 piece in the Atlantic stated that the parade and ensuing ball were “meant to reinforce the values of the elite on the working class of the city,” and a St. Louis city website said it was used for “reinforcing the notion of a benevolent cultural elite.”

A still from a new ad by Lucas Kunce’s campaign.
A still from a new ad by Lucas Kunce’s campaign. (Kunce campaign via Twitter)

Busch Valentine was crowned the ball's Queen of Love and Beauty in 1977 at age 20, the same year two members of the civil rights group ACTION were arrested outside for protesting the event. (Five years earlier, two members of the organization, one of them Jewish, crashed the ball and unmasked the prophet, who was a Monsanto executive.) According to reporting from the Intercept, Busch Valentine returned at least twice, including in 1990 to be honored beside other former queens, and her daughter participated in the event in 2010.

The ball made national headlines last year after old newspaper clippings circulated on social media of actress Ellie Kemper being crowned Queen of Love and Beauty in 1999, when she was a 19-year-old student at Princeton. Kemper apologized, saying, “The century-old organization that hosted the debutante ball had an unquestionably racist, sexist, and elitist past. I was not aware of this history at the time, but ignorance is no excuse. I was old enough to have educated myself before getting involved.”

In the new ad, the Kunce campaign shows photos of Busch Valentine bowing in front of the veiled prophet, with a narrator highlighting the ball's racist history and concluding, “She can never represent us.” The Busch Valentine campaign responded this week with an ad of its own that features a Black woman saying, “As a nurse, I’ve seen a lot, but the attacks against Trudy Busch Valentine go too far.”

A Kunce campaign ad highlights Busch Valentine’s participation in the controversial annual ball with white supremacist ties.
A Kunce campaign ad highlights Busch Valentine’s participation in the controversial ball. (Kunce campaign via Twitter)

When asked for comment about the attacks, the Busch Valentine campaign referred Yahoo News to a statement given to the Intercept in March.

“I believe in the importance of working together and healing divisions — and that starts with acknowledging my own past shortcomings,” Busch Valentine said. “I failed to fully grasp the situation. I should have known better, and I deeply regret and I apologize that my actions hurt others. My life and work are way beyond that, and as a candidate for Missouri’s next US Senator, I pledge to work tirelessly to be a force for progress in healing the racial divisions of our country.”

Busch Valentine’s background and the Veiled Prophet Ball were referenced this week by former Rep. Bill Clay Sr., Missouri’s first Black congressman, in his endorsement of Kunce.

“He didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth — he grew up in a family that was bankrupted by medical bills,” Clay said in a statement. “They relied on the generosity of neighbors. Lucas got a scholarship to college and served his country for 13 years as a U.S. Marine. Unlike other candidates in this race, the only ‘ball’ he’s ever been to is the Marine Corps Ball. He’s the one we can trust.”

Missouri Senate hopeful Lucas Kunce.
Senate hopeful Lucas Kunce in Independence, Mo., in May. (Dominick Williams for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Kunce and Busch Valentine have yet to debate in person, with the news director of the St. Louis CBS affiliate blaming the latter for not responding to “numerous requests” to participate in a televised forum. The candidates were two of 11 participants in a League of Women Voters forum held Monday on Zoom.

Republican chances of retaining the Senate seat are still considered high by nonpartisan prognosticators like the Cook Political Report, but there is a potential result next month that could put the seat in play for the Democratic nominee. Polling currently shows a three-way race for the GOP nomination between state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Rep. Vicky Hartzler and former Gov. Eric Greitens.

General election polls have shown Schmitt and Hartzler with double-digit leads against both Kunce and Busch Valentine, similar to the margins held by former President Donald Trump in his two victories in the state. But those same polls show Greitens with a single-digit lead, and Republicans are worried his scandalous background could potentially cost them the seat. Their concerns led to the launch of a super-PAC to stop Greitens.

Trudy Busch Valentine in a campaign photo.
Trudy Busch Valentine. (Via trudybuschvalentine.com)

Greitens resigned from his position as governor in 2018 after a woman testified under oath that he had tied her up in his basement, stripped her naked, taken photos of her, threatened to use those photos as blackmail if she discussed their extramarital affair and then forced her into performing oral sex. He was also embroiled in scandals involving donor lists and alleged campaign finance violations.

Additionally, in documents filed this spring, Greitens’s ex-wife alleged she had evidence proving he had abused her and their children as the two battled over custody. Eric and Sheena Greitens both testified in a private deposition on Wednesday.

In the affidavit, Sheena Greitens said her husband threatened to kill himself if she did not support him politically and said he would use his power to get her arrested so she would lose custody of the children. The case could be moved to Texas, where Sheena Greitens now works as a professor. The former governor has contended that his ex-wife’s claims are part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP operative Karl Rove.

Eric and Sheena Greitens.
Eric Greitens and his then wife, Sheena, in December 2016. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Schmitt has served as state attorney general since 2019 and last month quickly activated Missouri’s “trigger law” on abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The state now has a total abortion ban except in the case of a medical emergency.

“My Office has effectively ended abortion in Missouri, becoming the first state in the country to do so following the Court’s ruling,” Schmitt said in a June 24 statement. “My Office has been fighting to uphold the sanctity of life since I became attorney general, culminating in today’s momentous court ruling and attorney general opinion. I will continue the fight to protect all life, born and unborn.”

Hartzler is a former state legislator who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since first winning her seat in 2010. She was one of the congressional Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election in the aftermath of the violence on Jan. 6, 2021, and was endorsed by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, one of the leading proponents of the baseless conspiracy theory that the election was stolen.

So far Trump hasn’t endorsed in the race, but earlier this month he said he didn’t think Hartzler has “what it takes.” He also complimented Greitens while describing him as the preferred opponent of Democrats.

“He’s the one the Democrats legitimately want to run against,” Trump said in an interview with One America News Network, adding that “Eric is tough and he’s smart. A little controversial, but I’ve endorsed controversial people before. So we’ll see what happens.”

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