The road to Jan. 6 ran through St. Louis

Prominent Missouri Republican office holders and current or former St. Louis-based  activists played key roles in trying to subvert the 2020 presidential election and in laying the groundwork for the Jan. 6 insurrection.  

The cast of characters included fist-raising Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who may want to be president, and litigious Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt,  who most definitely wants to be a U.S. senator.  Missouri Solicitor General D. John Sauer, hired by Hawley and relied upon by Schmitt, also played an important role, helping Schmitt in Dec. 2020 engineer a legal effort – called meritless by critics from both parties – that breathed new life into the idea that Donald Trump had won the election.

 Two other leading characters are the far-right ideologues Edward R. Martin and James (“Jim”) Hoft.  Martin, the former Missouri Republican Party Chairman and heir to the mantle of the late Phyllis Schafly, has been subpoenaed by the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the Capitol; the committee called him an “organizer, both individually and through your organization” of the Stop the Steal protest. Hoft publishes the much-read and highly lucrative Gateway Pundit website, which promulgates a wide range of conspiracy theories.  He now faces two defamation suits for his coverage of election-related issues, one of which is backed by the father of the Republican Party in Missouri, former Sen. John C. Danforth. 

(Illustration by Steve Edwards)

Some of the story has been told in Missouri media. The Post-Dispatch’s Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Tony Messenger, has provided revelatory coverage of the roots of Jan. 6 in the white supremacy movement in Missouri and beyond. But with no Washington reporting presence, the Post-Dispatch has provided limited original news coverage. The Kansas City Star, which has a Washington congressional correspondent, reported this winter that 18 Missourians and eight people from Kansas – including three “Proud Boys” – are among the more than 750 people charged with crimes related to Jan. 6. And both papers have reported extensively on Hawley and Schmitt. 

Still, much of the story has not been told.

Some figures have escaped notice entirely. Ties between others have gone unidentified. Links that several St. Louis figures have to national figures involved in the events have also gone unreported. And relevant right-wing history in St. Louis, dating back to the John Birch Society, has escaped notice.            

This story provides a fuller accounting.  It examines the connections, motives, and biographies of some of the St. Louis players. The account remains incomplete, in part because many of the figures won’t answer journalists’ questions. Perhaps some of the holes will be filled eventually through the continuing work of the House Select Committee , which is moving toward public hearings this spring or summer.

Here are some of the key Missouri connections:

  • Sauer and Hawley, two former Supreme Court clerks, lent their reputations as brilliant lawyers to the Trump effort in the courts and Congress to overturn the election. Sauer and Schmitt filed an amicus brief supporting Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s December, 2020 election challenge, which was widely viewed as spurious and quickly rejected by the Supreme Court without argument, but which gave credence to the idea that the election had been stolen.   The House Select Committee Investigating the Jan. 6 Attack on the Capitol has shown an interest in the amicus brief rushed to the high court by Schmitt and Sauer.
  • Even before the election, as has been previously reported, Sauer registered for “WAR GAMES” sponsored by the Republican Attorney General’s Association (RAGA) to plan for election challenges if Trump lost. Schmitt’s office also was in touch with the RAGA on Jan. 5, the day the group made a robocall to energize marchers.  Schmitt’s spokesperson says he didn’t know about the robocall.
  • Hawley, who played a key role in establishing Jan. 6 as a pivot point for the election, has received major financial backing from a far-right billionaire hedge fund operator – Robert Mercer – who has funded several people who directly or indirectly supported the Jan. 6 protest.  Hawley’s conduct also prompted a little-publicized ethics complaint against him by a group made up primarily of St. Louis lawyers. The complaint is still pending.
  • Hoft, the publisher of the Gateway Pundit website, played a major role in seeding the so-called “Big Lie” that President Donald J. Trump won the election. In a court filing, Hoft has now admitted that he had no evidence for one of his major allegations — concerning rigged Dominion Voting System machines.  That allegation was part of a filing by an ally of President Trump with the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • In a relationship that may have ended only very recently, LockerDome, one of St. Louis’s most heralded start-up companies, did significant business with the Gateway Pundit.     
  • As part of the legacy of the late Phyllis Schlafly, the “Alton housewife” who helped transform the Republican Party into what it is today, St. Louis served as the scene in recent years for gatherings of many of the people who became top national figures in the Jan. 6 insurrection.  They included Martin, Ali Alexander, Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, and many others.  
  • Several of the individuals involved in promoting the protest have reaped substantial financial rewards. Celebrity in the right-wing ecosphere, like celebrity in most parts of American life, pays.  
  • None of the political figures involved has faced serious repercussions; in fact, Hawley and Schmitt likely benefited politically.

Altogether these local figures had leading roles in seeding the notion that the election had been stolen from Trump and that the courts should throw out the electors from states where Biden’s margins among Black voters in the big cities of Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta gave him his victory.  They also helped establish the idea that Congress could do what the courts did not – overturn the election – and that Jan. 6 was the date when lawmakers could do it.  

Had they achieved their stated goals, these individuals would have disenfranchised the votes of millions of voters and killed the 230-year tradition of the peaceful transfer of power.

Editor’s note: This story is on the cover of our spring 2022 print magazine. 

Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent writer and communications consultant.

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