GOP candidates will remain on Vernon County ballot pending review by Missouri appeals court

Ballot with Republican, Democrat and Liberttarian Parties
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(Missouri Independent) – Eight Republican candidates for county office – including four GOP incumbents – will be on the ballot in Vernon County in August, at least until a lawsuit plays out at the Missouri Court of Appeals.

An order issued Wednesday by the Western District Court of Appeals stayed a trial court decision directing Vernon County Clerk Adrienne Lee to remove the names from the ballot. The order, issued by Presiding Judge Lisa White Hardwick, is intended “to prevent the appeal from becoming moot” because of tight deadlines for Lee to finalize the Aug. 6 ballot.

The case is one of two in Missouri this year that illustrate the power – and limitations – of political parties in controlling who seeks nomination to office. The core dispute in both cases is whether the decision is made when the party accepts or refuses the legally required filing fee that is paid to the parties.

In Vernon County, the Republican Central Committee refused to accept the filing fees of any candidate who did accept its vetting process. Candidates must sign a pledge to support the Republican Party platform and a 75% or better score on a test with 25 questions taken from the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian party platforms, Mark McCloskey, an attorney representing the county party, said in an interview with The Independent.


 Mark McCloskey speaks to one of his campaign volunteers after officially filing to run in the Missouri Senate primaries on Feb. 22, 2022, at the Kirkpatrick State Information Center in Jefferson City (photo by Madeline Carter). 

“If there is a reason to have a Republican Party, as opposed to a Democrat Party or Libertarian Party, it’s got to be that there are some core values that are represented by that party that are different than the other party,” McCloskey said.

In the other case, in Cole County, the Missouri Republican Party last week lost a lawsuit seeking to kick Darrell McClanahan III off the ballot for governor. McClanahan, a resident of Milo in Vernon County, is listed first, with eight other candidates.

The state party doesn’t want McClanahan on the ballot because he admitted being an “honorary member” of the Ku Klux Klan in a lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League. McClanahan also faces felony property damage and stealing charges in a case being heard in Wright County.

The state Republican Party sued Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft to remove McClanahan, but Circuit Judge Cotton Walker wrote that by accepting his $500 filing fee, the party was stuck with him.

In his ruling, handed down last week, Walker noted that McClanahan was a candidate in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in 2022 and the party did nothing to prevent him from filing for governor.

“Here, the situation of which the plaintiff complains only exists because it made the voluntary decision to accept filing fees, on two occasions, that McClanahan offered in accordance with Missouri law,” Walker wrote.

Lowell Pearson, attorney for the state party, did not return a call seeking comment on the decision. So far, no appeal has been filed. If an appeal is made, it will go to the same court hearing the Vernon County case.

Dave Roland, attorney for McClanahan, said Republicans should have learned they could not boot McClanahan from the ballot from a case he handled in 2018 involving the Democratic Party. At that time, the party sued unsuccessfully to keep John Boyd Jr. off the ballot in the 36th House District

The party accepted Boyd’s filing fee despite his two previous bids for office as a Republican. Ashcroft, a Republican who is running for governor, was not defending McClanahan’s spot on the ballot, Roland said.

“They were going to let him be bulldozed,” Roland said. “And regardless of what I feel about some of the opinions that Mr. McClanahan has expressed, I was not cool with him getting bulldozed like that, especially when I think he’s right on the law.”

The Cole County case shows why the state party should adopt a vetting process like the one adopted in Vernon County and several other counties across the state, McCloskey said.

McCloskey, who gained national attention when he was photographed outside his home in 2020 pointing a firearm toward Black Lives Matter protesters, was also a candidate in the 2022 Senate primary.

McClanahan’s views were known at that time, McCloskey said.

“If we’d had a good vetting process, it would have weeded out McClanahan before he ever got to the secretary of state’s office,” McCloskey said.


 Darrell McClanahan of Milo, a candidate for governor who the Missouri Republican Party attempted to remove from the ballot for being an ‘honorary’ KKK member. He is shown in a photo from his 2022 campaign for U.S. Senate, standing in front of the flag of the Missouri State Guard, a military force formed in 1861 to oppose the Union in the Civil War (Campaign photo). 

Walker, in his ruling, alluded to vetting as a way to screen candidates.

The Republican Party “is a sophisticated entity and the record shows that it was not only aware of a party’s authority to reject a filing fee offered by a candidate,” Walker wrote, “but that segments of the Missouri Republican Party have already adopted a policy of rejecting filing fees from any candidate who has not completed a prescribed vetting process.”

Walker also wrote that primaries are intended to put nominating decisions in the hands of rank-and-file party voters, not party leaders.

“If the party’s voters eventually did choose McClanahan as their nominee, it could merely indicate that the plaintiff did not actually know or correctly represent the values or interests of its own rank and file members,” Walker wrote.

The filing fee is required by state law and varies in amount depending on whether the office is a statewide position, a legislative post or local office. For candidates who file at the secretary of state’s office, the fee goes to the statewide party committee. For local offices, the money benefits the county central committees.

A 2020 change to the law could be the key to whether the Vernon County candidates remain on the ballot after the appeals court arguments scheduled for June 25. At that time, lawmakers rewrote the statute to require fees due when filing at the secretary of state’s office to be paid directly to the political party. The legislature left in place an allowance for the fee in local races to be paid to the election authority and forwarded to the local party treasurer.

For years, Democratic and Republican state parties have sent representatives to the secretary of state’s office to speed up the process for the hundreds of candidates who file on the first possible day – the only time when the first position on the ballot is available.

In 2018, the Democratic Party representatives at the secretary of state’s office refused to accept the filing fee presented by state Rep. Courtney Curtis of St. Louis as he filed for a state Senate seat. When Curtis went upstairs and attempted to file without a signed receipt, his paperwork was refused.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the party had no legal duty to accept the filing fee and that Curtis did not attempt to pay the fee directly to the secretary of state’s office, as the law allowed at the time. The ruling prompted the change in law.

Lawmakers only changed the requirement for candidates filing in Jefferson City. The eight Vernon County candidates awaiting a final ruling paid their fees in the clerk’s office.

The clerk should have waited for the party to decide whether to accept the money before allowing the candidates to finish filing, Circuit Judge Gayle Crane ruled.

“The court finds that the Vernon County Clerk failed to perform the ministerial duty imposed by Section 115.357 of receiving a receipt from the party the candidate seeks nomination from, prior to accepting a declaration of candidacy,” the order states.

The appeal will seek to prove the clerk did everything as she should have and the party’s decision on whether to accept the fee is irrelevant, attorney Travis Elliott, who is representing the clerk, said Thursday.

“The statute says that a candidate may submit their filing fee to the county clerk who shall promptly forward it to the party, whichever party it is,” Elliott said. “And so once she has done those things that the statute says, there can be no mandamus for other things that the statute does not say.”

The candidates who could lose spots on the ballot include the incumbent county assessor, county treasurer, public administrator, and associate commissioner. The other four include two candidates for sheriff and two candidates for a commission seat.

Mike Buehler, one of the candidates for sheriff, is a former county clerk who resigned because he did not want to create any concern he would favor himself in the election.

He said he refused to undergo the vetting because it would put his loyalty to the party above his loyalty to the duties of the office.

“I will not lay down,” Buehler said. “I will not let them bully people, or push them around like they’re doing with us. I will stand up for all eight of us if I have to.”

Buehler said he will run as an independent if necessary. 

“I am not going to let the bastards win,” he said.

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Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy, and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.