ST. LOUIS (AP) — St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell announced Monday he will drop his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley in 2024, and will instead make a run at a fellow Democrat — U.S. Rep. Cori Bush.
Bell, 48, will oppose Bush in the 2024 Democratic primary for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District seat that covers St. Louis and part of St. Louis County. The decision comes as Bush has taken criticism for her response to the Hamas attack on Israel, including her call in a social media post to end “US government support for Israeli military occupation and apartheid.”
Bell and Bush are both Black, and both emerged as political forces in the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, a death that helped spark the national Black Lives Matter movement. Bush was elected to the House in 2020, pulling a stunning upset of Democratic veteran William Lacy Clay, and won reelection in 2022.
In 2018, Bell pulled an equally surprising upset when he unseated Bob McCulloch as St. Louis County prosecutor.
Bell said at a news conference that he was changing course, even though he felt he was the Democrat best positioned to defeat Hawley — an admittedly tall task in very conservative Missouri. He said several people around the state urged him to run for Congress instead.
He also was critical of Bush’s stance on Hamas and Israel.
“Understand this unique place that we are with the world literally on fire,” Bell said. “I think that we need to make certain that we are providing that effective leadership, not only in our district but in D.C. and on the world stage.”
A statement from the Bush campaign called it “disheartening that Prosecuting Attorney Bell has decided to abandon his US 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.”
The statement said Bush was elected “on a bold, progressive vision” and her 2022 reelection offered a clear mandate.
“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. No matter who enters the race and when, that focus will not change,” the statement said.
St. Louis is overwhelmingly Democratic and the winner of the August primary will be the heavy favorite to win in November. So far, Bush and Bell are the only people in the race.
Bush, 47, was easily reelected last year despite a challenge from Democratic state Sen. Steve Roberts, who positioned himself as a more moderate alternative.
Last week, she was among just 10 House members who voted against a resolution supporting Israel following the attacks by Hamas that began Oct. 7. Meanwhile, her comments have drawn rebukes from some, including former Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
On Oct. 11, McCaskill posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story headlined, “St. Louis’ Cori Bush draws fire for statement on Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel.”
“As she should,” McCaskill posted.
In the Democratic Senate primary, Bell was positioned against four other candidates. The projected frontrunner is Marine veteran Lucas Kunce, who launched his campaign to unseat Hawley in January, on the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riots. Bell, in announcing his Senate bid in June, highlighted a now-famous photo of Hawley raising a closed fist in solidarity that day, as well as video of the senator running through the halls during the attack.
The photo drew strong criticism from some, but it now appears on coffee mugs that the senator sells.
Bell and Bush had contrasting styles in Ferguson, after white Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Brown, a Black and unarmed 18-year-old.
As an angry crowd began to surround officers barricaded in the police parking lot the day after the shooting, Bell and a small group of other Black leaders got in the middle and urged calm. Bell at the time was a municipal judge and attorney, and his father was a police officer. He was elected to the Ferguson City Council in 2015.
The shooting led to months of unrest. Bush was a vocal leader of many of those protests. In Congress, she has been an advocate of shifting money from police and using it for things such as mental health and social services.
Critics had accused McCulloch, who is white, of skewing the investigation into Brown’s death in favor of Wilson. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson, who later resigned. The U.S. Department of Justice also declined to charge him — and so did Bell. His office reinvestigated the case after he took office.
Bell said in 2020 that his office did not find enough evidence to charge Wilson. He called on Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature to revise laws that offer protection against prosecution for police officers that regular citizens aren’t afforded.
During his time as prosecutor, Bell has implemented sweeping changes that have reduced the jail population, ended prosecution of low-level marijuana crimes and sought to help offenders rehabilitate themselves. He also established an independent unit to investigate officer-involved shootings.