Eric Greitens used his personal backstory and resume, not alliances with elected officials, to carry him to the Missouri governorship. The Republican made castigating “career politicians” a standard part of his rhetorical pitch — even after the 2016 election season ended.
But as details emerge from a sex scandal that tarnished his image and put his political career in jeopardy, the elected officials Greitens derided aren’t coming to his rescue. Some are twisting the knife.
By now, most people in Missouri politics, and perhaps around the country, know the details: After Greitens’ State of the State address Tuesday night, KMOV-TV ran a story where Greitens admitted to having an extramarital affair before he became governor. The report also featured a tape recording in which a woman claimed that Greitens took a compromising photo of her to keep the affair secret, something Greitens’ attorney strongly denies.
The story struck a nerve on two fronts: Greitens placed a big emphasis on his character and socially conservative viewpoints during his campaign. He also wasn’t shy on attacking his political opponents personally: For instance, he went after then-Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder in several debates for Kinder's acquaintance with a former stripper. These biting comments, made in 2016, came months after Greitens’ affair occurred.
So the fact that he admitted to having an affair in the run up to his debut in electoral politics sparks sharp questions about the image he put forth to voters.
“I would characterize each of these allegations taken as a whole creates a stew that’s pretty bad,” said state Rep. Gina Mitten, a Richmond Heights Democrat. “Having an extramarital affair is not a good thing, obviously. Having an extramarital affair with someone who is married is also bad. Having an extramarital affair with a woman who is married in your own home touches at the nerve of a lot of folks.”
But many of Greitens’ detractors, and sympathizers, are honing on the accusation of blackmail — which the woman on the tape hasn’t confirmed or talked about to any media outlet. But it’s prompted St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner to open an investigation — and lawmakers like Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, to broach the possibility of impeachment. Even Republican legislative leaders who worked well with Greitens in the past, such as Sen. Andrew Koenig of Manchester, say the governor should step down if the blackmail allegations are true.
“We want answers,” said state Rep. Jean Evans, a Manchester Republican, who added the governor should resign if the blackmail allegations are true. “We want transparency. We want to know exactly what happened. If he wants to allege that this woman lied about everything that was on the tape and be transparent about any other allegations regarding his administration, I think that would go a long way toward winning back the trust.”
On Friday, the woman's lawyer — Scott Simpson of St. Charles — said in a statement that the woman has no plans to go public:
"This story has taken an emotional toll on our client and she is extremely distraught that the information has been made public. It is very disappointing that her ex husband betrayed her confidence by secretly, and without her knowledge, recording a private and deeply personal conversation and then subsequently released the recording to the media without her consent... She is saddened that during this time of national introspection on the treatment of women in our society, allegations about her private life have been published without her permission."
The fact that Republicans aren’t running to the governor’s rescue isn’t surprising to David Barklage, a veteran GOP political consultant who campaigned against Greitens in 2016. He pointed to how Greitens constantly picked fights with Republican lawmakers who he needs to pass his agenda. His campaign workers set up a politically-active nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors to attack lawmakers like Romine.
“When you have a lot of friends, they’ll stand up for you and defend you. When you don’t have a lot of friends, people will just be silent,” Barklage said. “I don’t necessarily see interests that don’t like him to try to use this to kill him. I think they’ll be silent and let him implode on his own if that’s what happens.”
Both Barklage and former Missouri Republican Party Chairman John Hancock believe Greitens’ ability to stay in office, let alone retain any chance of national office, depend on how forthcoming he is and whether there are any other scandals looming.
“If this is all there is and there’s no other revelations that come out about this instance or certainly if there’s no other women, then I do think he survives,” Hancock said. “He was quick to put out a statement. In these matters, when you’re dealing with a crisis situation, you need to get a statement out there that will withstand the test of time.
“So we’re so early in this thing that who knows?” he added on Thursday. “But if his statement is accurate and there are no other revelations, then I think he survives.”
High policy stakes
Greitens’ attorney, James Bennett, said in an e-mail to St. Louis Public Radio that the governor is “no way considering resigning.” National publications are already speculating that the news could damage Greitens’ ambitions to be a presidential or vice presidential candidate.
Yet the prospect of Greitens' resignation is notable for more than just political reasons.
If Greitens steps down, Lt. Gov. Mike Parson would serve as governor for roughly three years. Both Parson and Greitens are Republicans, but Parson sharply disagreed with Greitens’ successful bid to halt state low-income housing tax credits.. As long as Greitens is governor, he could prevent that popular incentive from being issued for years — a decision worth hundreds of millions of dollars to banks, developers and syndicators that depend on the program.
Parson is a strong supporter of the low-income housing tax credit, as he detailed during an episode of Politically Speaking that aired this week. Parson also advocated for undoing Greitens' cuts to in-home health care for elderly and low-income residents.
Right now, the possibility of Parson becoming governor is hypothetical. Evans, who talked with the governor and his wife, Sheena Greitens, this week, said as long as Greitens remains in office, he has a lot of work to do to repair his relationships with fellow elected officials.
“I think people want to know what happened,” Evans said. “There’s a lot of people in our caucus who feel the extramarital affair has completely destroyed his credibility. And we want to be unified in our messaging. But I know from talking to people… we are disturbed and disappointed in his behavior.”
On the Trail, an occasional column, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.
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