ST. CHARLES — The annual Lincoln Days rally, held here over the weekend to celebrate the Republican Party, had a much different feel than when U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., started making a name throughout the state.

In 1984, Blunt became the first Republican to be elected Secretary of State from Missouri in more than half a century. Democrats still had a firm grip on power statewide at the time.

“Internally, Republicans were just happy to have candidates they thought had a chance to win,” Blunt, now a senior senator from Missouri, said in an interview Saturday, reflecting on the evolution of the Republican Party.

Today, the top-ranked Democrat is Auditor Nicole Galloway. She is not seeking re-election. Neither is Blunt, which, in addition to bashing everything about President Joe Biden, set the tone for the Lincoln Days event.

As the official filing date opens Feb. 22, at least half a dozen candidates say they are running in the Aug. 2 Republican primary. So far, the crowded race has been a competition to see who is more conservative. The candidates didn’t swerve much on the core issues of crime, policing, abortion and immigration, but a few jabs did start rolling out at the St. Charles Convention Center.

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Blunt said he preferred not to endorse.

“I’m not saying I won’t be involved until it’s over, but I’d rather not be,” he said. “Almost everyone there has helped me, and I, in the past, have been helpful to them. The primary will manage.

Offering insight into how they measure up, four of the six leading candidates spoke at a panel here on Saturday attended by around 300 people. Senate Pro Tem Chairman Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, was in the midst of the ongoing redistricting fight in Jefferson City and was unable to attend, the moderator said. Former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens remotely criticized the “establishment event” because Karl Rove was going to be there, according to Breitbart News.

“President Trump said Rove was ‘a pompous jerk with bad advice and still has an agenda,'” Greitens told the conservative outlet, calling at least some of those who gathered at Lincoln Days RINO, or Republican in name only. “This establishment event proves that the RINOs are willing to sell out their country to overwhelm creatures looking to make a quick buck with the movement.”

While primary voters will ultimately choose the party’s standard bearer, the former president’s stamp of approval appears to be key.

“Who knows if he’s going to support anyone in this race,” U.S. Representative Billy Long, R-Springfield, said in an interview. “I would love to have it, but every candidate would love to have it.”

Long, an auctioneer and real estate broker, was elected to Congress in 2010 with no prior political experience. He told the crowd on Saturday that he originated the phrase “Trump train” before Trump was popular and now hopes he will regain the presidency in 2024.

“Election integrity is important,” Long said. “We have to stay on our toes.”

U.S. Representative Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, also served multiple terms in Congress.

“We have to fire Nancy Pelosi,” said Hartzler, a farmer and former teacher. “That’s the reason I first ran in 2010 is because she took over the House of Representatives. She raised this gavel and she said, ‘Now I speak on behalf of of all the women of this country.’ You don’t speak for me. You don’t speak for conservative women, pro-life women, housewives. You gotta go.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt underscored his record by suing numerous school districts in the state when it was unpopular to do so. Then he threw a beard, apparently aimed at Long and Hartzler.

“Now is not the time to send the same people back there who were part of the DC establishment, folks,” Schmitt said. “Now is the time to send in a proven fighter. Someone who understands the stakes.

Mark McCloskey, the personal injury lawyer known for brandishing a Colt AR-15 rifle at racial justice protesters outside his Central West End home, has said he will never run for office.

“People who have been politicians their entire adult lives have brought us to this point in our country,” he said. “Our democratic republic is on the verge of permanent extinction. The time has come for people who are really ready to stand up, really fight and face the crowd. I faced the crowd. I’m ready to take on the crowd in DC”

Once Blunt retires, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley will be Missouri’s senior senator. At Lincoln Days, he announced his endorsement of Hartzler. Friday night, Hawley and his wife, Erin, were the keynote speakers.

“It’s just great to breathe the fresh air and be out of Washington, DC,” Hawley said to cheers.

Then he lambasted Biden and the Democratic Party on multiple fronts.

“Democrats can tell us that the character of this country is consistently bad, twisted, twisted and racist,” he said. “I don’t believe a word of it. Do you?”

“No,” said the mostly white audience.

“It’s a good country,” Hawley told them. “It’s a great country full of good people. And we are in the midst of a struggle for the very essence of who we are. To renew it. To make us strong again.

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