Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who last week accused Democrat Trudy Busch Valentine of dodging debates, refused to show up for the first debate of Missouri's U.S. Senate campaign on Friday.
Organized by the Missouri Press Association as part of its annual convention in Lake Ozark, Valentine, Libertarian Party candidate Jonathan Dine and Constitution Party candidate Paul Venable shared the stage with an empty lectern that was reserved for Schmitt. Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, said this is only the second time since 1988 that a major-party candidate has refused to attend one of the organization's debates.
The first slate of questions focused on the state of American democracy, which Valentine said was in "crisis."
She decried the idea of the independent state legislature theory, which argues the federal government and state courts have no role in setting up rules for elections, saying "we need rules that are the same all over America regarding our ability to vote."
Dine said during previous runs for office he was routinely left out of debates, leaving him to believe that America doesn't have a true democracy but rather "a club where only two teams get to participate."
Venable focused on former President Donald Trump's lie of a stolen presidential election, saying he doesn't believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected president in 2020.
"On Jan. 6, there was an insurrection," he said, "but he did not come from outside the Capitol."
Asked about banning foreign ownership of farmland, both Dine and Venable say they would oppose the idea.
Valentine highlighted Schmitt's 2013 vote in the state Senate to allow Missouri farmland to be owned by a foreign entity.
Before that vote, foreign ownership of Missouri farmland was banned. Soon after the ban was lifted, a Chinese company purchased Smithfield Foods and its 40,000 acres of Missouri farmland.
China was a key flashpoint in the GOP U.S. Senate primary, with all six major candidates jockeying for position in a party that has adopted former President Donald Trump's hard line against China as gospel.
Valentine echoed the criticism of Schmitt on Friday.
"Eric Schmitt allowed thousands of acres of farmland to be sold to Communist China," Valentine said. "And that's just plain wrong."
With Congress considering legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, the candidates were asked whether they would support prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
"All people should have the right to live the authentic life they want to live," Valentine said.
Dine agreed that LGBTQ Americans should be able to live freely without fear of persecution.
"If you're in the public marketplace and you're selling goods or services," he said, "you have no right to discriminate against somebody based on their race, color, gender or sexual orientation."
Venable said Congress doesn't have the constitutional authority to prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination. That, he said, is the job of states.
Asked about the proposed constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana that will appear on the Missouri ballot in November, both Valentine and Venable said they would oppose the federal government legalizing marijuana.
Valentine said she supports the amendment legalizing marijuana in Missouri because it keeps cannabis out of the hands of anyone under 21.
"This is an important issue for me," Valentine said. "I had a son who died of an opioid overdose."
Dine said he was once sentenced to three years in prison for possession of marijuana. Now, he said, he's a licensed cannabis cultivator.
"I find it ironic that they had once sent me to jail for something and now they let me do it if I pay them their extortion," he said, adding he supports both the amendment in Missouri but also any moves toward legalization at the federal level.
Valentine said the greatest threat facing the country is climate change.
"We all need to start getting off fossil fuels," he said.
Venable said the biggest threat is Joe Biden's administration.
"Congress has the power to fix this," he said. "And they had the power to do it on Jan. 6."
The national debt is the nation's biggest threat, Dine said. "The problem is we're running out of money," he said.
In an emailed statement about Schmitt's refusal to participate in Friday's event, his spokesman said the attorney general only wants to participate in debates that are televised statewide during prime time. He said Schmitt has agreed to participate in a debate hosted by Nexstar, which operates stations in the state's three largest media markets, Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield.
Valentine's spokesman said after Friday's event she has agreed to a televised debate last month and "will continue to review any and all invitations we have."
The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.