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Wesley Bell drops U.S. Senate run, challenges incumbent Rep. Cori Bush for House seat

Wesley Bell, St. Louis County Prosecutor, announced he will be dropping out of the United States Senate race and will instead challenge Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, for her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Wesley Bell, St. Louis County Prosecutor, announced he will be dropping out of the United States Senate race and will instead challenge Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, for her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The turnabout from the St. Louis County prosecutor means U.S. Rep. Cori Bush will have a credible opponent in next year’s 1st Congressional District Democratic primary.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell is leaving the Democratic contest for U.S. Senate and instead will run to represent Missouri’s 1st Congressional District.

Bell’s move not only shakes up the Democratic primary against Sen. Josh Hawley, it means that U.S. Rep. Cori Bush will have a Democratic opponent for the second straight election cycle.

During a press conference on Monday in Normandy, Bell said he’d heard one refrain since entering the Senate contest earlier this year: “We need you in Washington, but St. Louis needs you in the House of Representatives.”

“So after thoughtful consideration, and consultation with respected and committed community and political leaders, I'm formally withdrawing as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and announcing my candidacy for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. House of Representatives for Missouri's 1st Congressional District,” Bell said.

Bell added that “our world is in a dangerous place — and we need steady and effective leadership.”

“And we're not getting it here in the 1st District,” he said.

Bell and Bush both came to prominence after a Ferguson police officer fatally shot Michael Brown Jr. in 2014. Bush parlayed her visibility as a protest leader in Ferguson to defeating U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay in 2020, after Bell rode discontent over how Brown’s case was handled to defeat St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch in 2018.

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, celebrates victory during her Election Night watch party at House of Soul on August 2, 2022 in St. Louis.
Michael B. Thomas
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Special to St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, celebrates victory during her Election Night watch party at House of Soul on August 2, 2022 in St. Louis.

Among other differences, Bell has taken issue with Bush’s divergence from President Joe Biden’s agenda — including voting against the federal infrastructure bill and advocating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

“With the world literally on fire, I think that we need to make certain that we are providing that effective leadership not only in our district but also in D.C. and on the world stage,” Bell said.

Bush's campaign manager, Devon Moody, said in a statement that "everyone has a right to run for whichever office they see fit, be it a seat for the United States Senate or the United States House."

But Moody added it "is disheartening that Prosecuting Attorney Bell has decided to abandon his U.S. Senate campaign to become Missouri's first Black Senator after less than five months, and has instead decided to target Missouri's first Black Congresswoman."

"Congresswoman Bush won this seat to represent the people of St. Louis in 2020 on a bold, progressive vision, and every day since being sworn into Congress she has prioritized the needs and wellbeing of her constituents," Moody said. " Judging by her massive victory last cycle, her mandate is clear. "

Moody was referring to how Bush easily won renomination in 2022 against state Sen. Steve Roberts, getting nearly 70% of the vote in the primary. The 1st Congressional District is heavily Democratic, so winning that primary is tantamount to winning reelection.

"The Congresswoman remains laser focused on working with her Democratic colleagues to prevent MAGA extremists from further eroding our basic human rights and blocking critical resources for our communities, and she will keep pushing forward a pro-St. Louis, pro-democracy, pro-peace agenda," Moody added. "No matter who enters the race and when, that focus will not change.”

When asked why he thought he would do better than Roberts, Bell replied, “I think when you're doing what's right, you do what's right.”

“And as prosecutor, I have to make some very tough decisions,” Bell said. “But at the end of the day, if I know that I'm making the right decision, I can deal with the fallout. And in this case, this district needs steady and effective leadership. This country needs steady and effective leadership. And I'm making this run because I believe it's the right thing to do.”

Bell may not be the only Democrat who will take on Bush next year. State Sen. Brian Williams of University City has also been mentioned as a potential candidate against the two-term congresswoman.

“Others will make their decisions, but I've made mine,” he said when asked about the prospect of others running against Bush.

State Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, and Lucas Kunce attend the Truman Dinner on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023, at the Marriott Grand Hotel in Downtown St. Louis. The two are competing in the 2024 Democratic senate primary, looking to eventually challenge Republican incumbent Josh Hawley. The Democratic National Convention’s 2023 Fall Meeting begins Thursday.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, and Lucas Kunce attend the Truman Dinner on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023, at the Marriott Grand Hotel in Downtown St. Louis. The two are competing in the 2024 Democratic senate primary, looking to eventually challenge Republican incumbent Josh Hawley. The Democratic National Convention’s 2023 Fall Meeting begins Thursday.

Senate shakeup

Bell’s departure also shakes up the Democratic primary to take on Hawley.

With Bell leaving the race, the two major candidates are now Lucas Kunce and state Sen. Karla May. Kunce has emerged as the fundraising leader in the contest, often raising more money in certain quarters than Hawley.

“We’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing from day one — build the coalition we need to defeat Josh Hawley in 2024," said Caleb Cavarretta, Campaign Manager for Lucas Kunce. "Lucas has racked up major endorsements from elected leaders across the state and organized labor, including major backers like the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Machinists, Fire Fighters, and more. And he’s built a sizable war chest, with $1.7 million cash-on-hand, a record for a Missouri challenger in recent history.”

In addition to his organized labor support, Kunce has also received the backing of a number of key African American officials, including St. Louis Alderman Rasheen Aldridge and St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Shalonda Webb. And soon after out of the race, Kunce announced that St. Louis County Councilwomen Lisa Clancy and Kelli Dunaway were endorsing his campaign.

While May has struggled to raise money so far, Bell’s exit may prompt political groups and elected officials who are wary of Kunce to give her candidacy another look. Or a new candidate could get into the race.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jason Rosenbaum