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After months of polling left Bill Eigel trailing in third place in the Republican primary for Missouri governor, a new survey suggests he may be within striking distance of the front-runners.

And the poll that showed Eigel’s positive development was paid for by one of his campaign rivals, even though it was apparently not intended for public release.

American Dream PAC, the political action committee that supports Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe, had commissioned the poll for June but had not released it. The Independent found it and the accompanying analysis on an obscure page on the PAC’s website last week before it was removed.

Similar to a number of polls released in recent weeks, the American Dream PAC poll showed a neck-and-neck race between Kehoe and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft in the battle for the lead in the Republican primary.

However, this is the first poll to suggest that Republican Senator Eigel could be catching up.

The poll found Kehoe and Ashcroft tied at 27%, with Eigel in third place at 16%. About a quarter of respondents were undecided.

In other recent polls, Eigel’s value is in the single digits.

“If Eigel can attract more funding, this could be a true three-way race,” says the analysis of the June poll provided to American Dream PAC by the polling firm American Viewpoint.

The poll was conducted in early June, before Eigel’s campaign raised $415,000 in donations from trial lawyers last week and before Ashcroft or Eigel aired television ads.

Eigel’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Kehoe’s campaign did not respond to questions about Eigel’s poll numbers.

But Jason Cabel Roe, Ashcroft’s spokesman, expressed skepticism that Eigel’s numbers could reach double digits before his campaign even runs television ads.

“There were about 15 public polls released last year and 13 of them had Eigel up somewhere between 4 and 8 percentage points,” Roe said. “He just didn’t do anything to improve the numbers, so I don’t see how he could have doubled his vote share without spending money.”

The 800 people who took the poll were reached by cell phone, landline and text message, with a margin of error of 3.5%. According to the most recent campaign disclosures, American Viewpoint received $79,500 from American Dream PAC and $64,300 from Kehoe’s campaign in January.

The poll results not only serve as a possible barometer for the outcome of the race, they also provide insight into Kehoe’s possible strategy in the final weeks of the campaign.

Ashcroft has led the Republican primary from the start, benefiting from two terms as Secretary of State and a last name with a long history in Missouri politics. His father, John Ashcroft, served as state auditor, attorney general, governor, U.S. senator and U.S. attorney general.

Kehoe has managed to catch up with Ashcroft’s lead in recent months because his campaign team has exploited its enormous lead in fundraising to monopolize the television airwaves, the polling institute concluded.

More: The donation totals for the first quarter are available. This is how the candidates fare at the state level

Ashcroft and Eigel recently launched their first television commercials.

“Kehoe now leads in the two markets where it advertised,” the analysis concluded, later adding: “Kehoe’s reach is fairly consistent across all groups and geographically it is in line with advertising.”

Outside the two markets where Kehoe’s ads aired – St. Louis and Springfield – the race remains a matter of name recognition.

Kehoe leads in central Missouri, where he previously served as a state senator, and Ashcroft has a lead in Kansas City and smaller districts. That means, the pollster said, Kehoe’s campaign will have to devote resources to districts where he trails Ashcroft.

“This race is currently more about geography than about a single key demographic group,” the polling firm concluded.

Kehoe is strongest among “more centrist and traditional GOP voters,” the analysis found, while Ashcroft leads among “very conservative voters and Trump movement voters.”

Eigel, on the other hand, “cannot be ignored as a factor in this race,” according to the polling institute, with “ideology and affiliation with the Trump movement” being the decisive factors for his share of the vote.

Of the quarter of undecided poll respondents, liberal and moderate primary voters are more likely to be undecided than conservatives.

Illegal immigration and border security are the top issues in the election, the polling firm found, especially among very conservative voters in the primary. Ashcroft leads among those who cite border security, while Kehoe fares stronger among those who focus on the economy.

For months, the American Dream PAC has been attacking Ashcroft in television ads for his support of a bill to reduce the current 1 percent cap on Missouri farmland owned by foreign farmers to 0.5 percent. The PAC argues that Ashcroft should have supported a complete ban.

More: Springfield-based Hamra launches first TV ad in Missouri’s Democratic primary for governor

Ashcroft’s campaign pointed out that foreign ownership of farmland was prohibited in Missouri until 2013, when lawmakers passed the 1% cap. Kehoe voted for that law while in the Senate, and it opened the door for a Chinese company to buy Smithfield Foods and its 40,000 acres of Missouri farmland.

While the polling firm concluded that American Dream’s China ad was successful, it suggests that returns may be diminishing in markets where it has been running for months, so the campaign should consider switching to ads that focus on critical race theory.

Gabby Picard, a spokeswoman for Kehoe’s campaign, said the poll shows that Ashcroft’s once commanding lead in the Republican primary has “evaporated.” Kehoe, Picard said, has the upper hand.

“The people of Missouri do not believe Bill Eigel and Jay Ashcroft’s charade,” she said, “or the nonsense their campaign teams are spouting.”

Roe, the spokesman for Ashcroft’s campaign, said it was no surprise that the race had become so exciting, given that Kehoe spent millions of dollars and had the television airwaves to himself for months.

“Frankly,” Roe said, “given the amount of money spent, he should be in a lot better shape than he is.”

This story was first published on missouriindependent.com.