In a series of digital ads focused on Chinese farmland and taxes, state Sen. Bill Eigel has launched the opening salvo of a likely contentious 2024 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Eigel, a two-term GOP legislator from St. Charles County, began running ads on Facebook this month criticizing two of his fellow Republicans -- Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.
Kehoe officially joined the 2024 governor's race last year. Eigel announced his intentions to at least explore a bid for governor a few months later. Ashcroft is widely expected to run for governor but has not yet formally made his intentions known.
In one ad, Eigel criticizes Kehoe for sponsoring a sales tax increase in 2014 that would have gone to fund road and bridge construction. The ad also hits Kehoe for a pair of proposed gas tax hikes that were proposed after he left the Legislature, including one passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Mike Parson in 2021 increasing the fuel tax by 12.5-cents-a-gallon.
"I have opposed every Jefferson City effort to make your gas more expensive," Eigel writes in the digital ad. "Republicans do not raise taxes."
The other ads focus on a 2013 law that allowed 1 percent of farmland to be foreign owned. Previously, foreign ownership of Missouri farmland had been banned. The law opened the door for a Chinese company to purchase Smithfield Foods and its 40,000 acres of Missouri farmland.
Kehoe, like nearly every Republican lawmaker at the time, voted in favor of the change.
But most of Eigel's attacks are focused on Ashcroft, who wasn't in the Legislature when the foreign ownership legislation was enacted. In four digital ads criticizing Ashcroft, Eigel argues the secretary of state is pushing legislation this year that doesn't go far enough to restrict foreign entities from acquiring real estate in Missouri.
"I am the only 2024 Missouri candidate that thinks there should be a 100 percent ban on foreign ownership of Missouri farmland," Eigel said in one of the ads.
Neither Eigel nor Kehoe could be reached for comment on the ads.
In an interview Friday, Ashcroft said he's been working with Republican lawmakers to find a solution to an issue that's lingered for far too long.
"This has been something that hasn't been dealt with for several years by the Legislature," he said.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Jason Bean, R-Holcomb, and backed by Ashcroft would cut the limit on foreign-owned agriculture land from the current 1 percent to 0.5 percent. It would also bar ownership by individuals or businesses from certain countries, including China, Russia, North Korea and Venezuela.
"I don't think that what we're trying to do is the ultimate answer to where we need to be," Ashcroft said. "But what I wanted to do was take a measured approach so that we can actually fix a problem."
Eigel is sponsoring legislation that would ban all new foreign ownership of land in Missouri beginning Aug. 28
"Missouri ought to be owned by Missourians, or at the least, Americans," Eigel said at a January committee hearing on his bill.
Ashcroft said he worries the more expansive legislation could have unintended consequences, such as interfering with companies like Boeing that work with foreign entities.
Others have raised concerns that the provision in Eigel's bill barring foreign ownership of residential property could impact employees at companies like Germany-based Bayer, whose crop science division is based in the St. Louis area.
"My concern is historically, we talk about issues and we don't get stuff done," he said. "I don't want to be someone that's known for press conferences and press releases. I want to be someone that's known for getting policy accomplished."
While the vote to open Missouri farmland up to foreign ownership wasn't particularly controversial in 2013, it's turned into a major flashpoint in Republican politics in recent years as relations between the U.S. and China have deteriorated.
The 2016 campaign for attorney general saw Josh Hawley hammer his GOP rival, Kurt Schaefer, over his vote to end the ban. And last year's Republican primary for U.S. Senate saw nearly every candidate in the crowded field trying to stake out a claim as being the most ardently anti-China.
Ashcroft said he worries the entire debate has become politicized.
"This is just one more issue where we're gonna sacrifice good policy on the altar of politics," he said, later adding: "I am going to continue to push to make progress on this issue. I don't want in any way to insinuate that I'm not going to continue to try to move the issue forward. But I am also not optimistic. I think the odds of nothing happening this year are unfortunately now better than the odds of something good happening."
The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.