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For Missouri Republicans, angst over Eric Greitens is about more than winning in the fall

Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens speaks to the press on Feb. 22, 2022 after filing to run for Missouri's open U.S. Senate seat.
Sarah Kellogg
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St. Louis Public Radio
Former Gov. Eric Greitens, shown in 2017, is stoking fear that he may put a winnable U.S. Senate seat in jeopardy — or that he may win and force Missouri Republicans to deal with him again.

Back in February, Eric Greitens stood before a scrum of reporters in Jefferson City after filing for the U.S. Senate. Roughly four years removed from resigning as governor, Greitens was banking on Missouri Republicans to revive his dormant political career.

“We need fighters who are willing to do what it takes to take our country back, to take our country back from the left," Greitens said. "And also we need fighters who are willing to take on the establishment — take on the mainstream media.”

But shortly after he became one of 21 Republicans attempting to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, something happened that seems to be synonymous with Eric Greitens: scandal.

Greitens’ ex-wife, Sheena Greitens, filed legal documentation where she, under oath, accused the former chief executive of emotional and physical abuse. Sheena Greitens’ allegations prompted familiar calls for Greitens to exit the race from top Republican leaders, demands that he ignored.

Even with the newest torrent of controversy around him, few Republican or Democratic observers are confident that Greitens is destined to lose the Aug. 2 primary. And the concern among Republicans isn’t just about his viability in the general election, but the possibility that he may win this fall and gain a major platform to promote himself and his views.

“Eric Greitens didn’t make many friends the last time he was in the political eye,” said Republican state Sen. Bill Eigel of St. Charles County. “That actually attracts a lot of people, right? The less friends you make in Jefferson City, a lot of folks like that.

“But I think there is a point at which, especially in 2018, that he was such a divisive figure in Jefferson City that, gosh, here we are again going through this same conversation,” he added.

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Jason Rosenbaum
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St. Louis Public Radio
Former Missouri Republican Party Chairwoman Kay Hofalnder speaks at Lafayette County Lincoln Day on April 22. Hoflander called for Eric Greitens to depart the Senate race after his ex-wife accused him of abuse. Greitens has denied the allegations and is continuing with his campaign.

It comes back full circle

When Kay Hoflander read the accusations that Eric Greitens was emotionally and abusive to his ex-wife and one of his sons, the former Missouri Republican Party chairwoman said she “slept very fitfully.”

After some restlessness, Hoflander, a Lafayette County resident and former Missouri Republican Party chairwoman, composed a tweet that included a call for Greitens to get out of the U.S. Senate race. Once she pressed "send," Hoflander said that she felt much better.

“Someday, his children will see the messy, dark story about their family,” Hoflander said. “And they need to know that there were people who stood up for their mom.”

Even after a number of other prominent women in the Missouri Republican Party spoke out against him staying in the primary, Greitens remained in the contest — and in turn accused Sheena Greitens of being in cahoots with prominent GOP officials to discredit his Senate bid (a charge her attorney recently called “conspiracy theory.”) He and his supporters have amplified this message on some friendly media outlets, including that of former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon. (Greitens’ campaign did not respond to a request for the former governor to be interviewed for this story.)

In response, Sheena Greitens said she has documentation to back up her claims — which are playing out in front of a Boone County judge involving a request to move divorce-related proceedings to Texas. And the pushback from Greitens’ campaign, which included a statement from the campaign calling Sheena Greitens deranged and mentally ill, was jarring to Eigel and others.

“I mean this idea that her character is being attacked in this manner? I just … I can’t believe it,” Eigel said. “I can’t believe it.”

Added Hoflander: “If he’s telling the truth, then swear it in front of a judge. And even when he was governor, he did not go under oath when another female accuser did.”

Hoflander is referring to “KS”, a woman who accused Greitens, under oath, of sexual and physical abuse — which Greitens has denied. Those allegations, along with a separate controversy around his use of a nonprofit’s fundraising list for political purposes, set in motion a series of events that lead to his 2018 resignation.

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Jason Rosenbaum
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St. Louis Public Radio
Attendees at Lafayette County's Lincoln Days listen to speakers on April 22. The formerly Democratic county has a taken a hard right turn in recent years, and winning here could be critical if the 21-person GOP Senate primary is close.

Fear of losing — or winning?

Many national observers have assumed that the bid among some Republicans to stop Greitens from winning the Missouri primary is only about his general election viability. It’s based on the presumption that a well-funded and well-organized Democratic candidate, such as Lucas Kunce or Trudy Busch Valentine, could put what is considered to be a safe Republican seat into the Democratic column. That would damage the GOP effort to win a majority in the U.S. Senate.

But in many respects, that assumption doesn’t tell the whole story.

Greitens made scores of enemies during his governorship among sitting lawmakers, party activists and political operatives. He had a publicly acrimonious relationship with the GOP-run legislature, going so far to call some members of his own party “third graders.” He also developed a bitter rivalry with U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley — who in 2018 forwarded evidence of felony computer tampering to the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office.

Hawley, who is backing U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler’s Senate candidacy, tweeted last month that “if you hit a woman or a child, you belong in handcuffs, not the United States Senate.”

Hoflander said, “I think he has burned a lot of bridges.”

Former Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber noted that some of the animosity stems from Greitens’ decision to import political consultants from out of state. In 2016, Austin Chambers, who worked closely with prominent consultant Nick Ayers, managed Greitens’ campaign. (Chambers, like other former Greitens campaign officials from six years ago, is no longer working for him.)

“He’s never been an outsider. … He’s always been highly, highly connected,” said Webber, who was close with Greitens when they were both Democrats living in Columbia. “But he’s been connected to people outside of Missouri.”

John Lamping is a former GOP state senator who supported Greitens’ gubernatorial bid but is neutral in this year’s U.S. Senate race. He said Greitens' estrangement from Missouri’s GOP political class is a big driver in trying to get him out of the race.

He also said that some of the things Greitens is espousing, including deposing Mitch McConnell as GOP Senate leader, are popular with Republican voters attracted to a populist and nationalist message.

“They look at the two parties as kind of a uni-party — it’s a cartel,” Lamping said. “The political class hates him for the same reason the political class hated Trump before 2016 — and hate him even more once he got into office. Because what they know to be true, and this was proven true in Greitens’ case when he was governor, is he won’t listen to the political class. He doesn’t care what all the political consultants say.”

While Lamping said that his ex-wife’s allegations have definitely hurt his chances at winning, he also noted that Greitens is targeting a specific segment of the GOP primary voting base. He’s allying himself with prominent people in Trump’s orbit, including Bannon, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr.

“They’ll say he’ll lose in the general election — they’re just trying to appeal to people’s emotions,” Lamping said. “The reason they don’t like him is they don’t care what they think.”

Webber says Greitens is the only Republican who could lose in November. But he doesn’t believe that Democrats should cross over and vote for him — adding that GOP voters who don’t like Greitens may support him in a general election to prevent the U.S. Senate from staying in Democratic hands.

“I’m not willing to play games with that,” Webber said. “I think he needs to be stopped as soon as possible for the safety of individual humans and the safety of our political system. And for Missouri politics. We cannot give him a larger platform.”

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Jason Rosenbaum
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St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Senate hopeful Eric Schmitt speaks with attendees of Lafayette County Lincoln Days last week in Wellington, Missouri.

A crowded field

Of the aforementioned 21 Republican Senate contenders, only five candidates besides Greitens are considered viable. And some of them have been outpacing Greitens in fundraising in recent months, including Hartzler and Attorney General Eric Schmitt. Greitens and Schmitt also have political action committees that have raised millions of dollars that can be spent on television ads, while Hawley helped Hartzler set up a joint fundraising account that can assist the Harrisonville Republican’s endeavors.

Both Hartzler and Schmitt were mingling with the crowd last week at a packed gymnasium in Wellington, Missouri, trying to get backing from energized Republicans in Lafayette County. Both were making the case that they would be the best GOP contender to move on to the general election.

Hartzler said she has a lengthy record of accomplishment in Congress — and socially conservative bonafides. She has backing from agricultural groups and prominent Missouri Republican leaders like Hawley and former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond.

“When I share with Lincoln Day crowds like tonight, rather than focusing on the problems — I focus on the plan,” Hartzler said. “The plan to turn our country around. The plan to restore America’s greatness. And it’s really resonating with people.”

Schmitt said his two statewide wins for state treasurer and attorney general, as well as his litigation against President Joe Biden’s administration, help him stand out in the crowded field.

“I think it’s a record of accomplishment and action versus a lot of talk,” Schmitt said.

Also working the crowd and handing out campaign bumper stickers was Congressman Billy Long. He said his path to victory will stem from either voters not getting enthused about the other candidates — or Trump giving him his endorsement. While the former president has not made a decision on the race, he recently put out a statement praising Long.

Long said if Greitens, Hartzler and Schmitt “bludgeon themselves into a bloody pulp,” it’s not out of the question that voters may ponder if “there is a fat auctioneer in Springfield we can vote for.”

“And I think that’s my second option to win,” said Long, after Trump's potential backing.

For attendees of Lafayette County Lincoln Days, one thing was clear: They want the race to be about issues that matter to GOP voters, not about Greitens’ personal scandals.

“I don’t want the drama, I want the best candidate,” said Odessa resident Eric Kolkmeyer.

Lafayette County Public Administrator Linda Niendick said the person who prevails on Aug. 2 not only will have to have run the best campaign — but made the effort to personally reach out to GOP voters like the ones attending last week’s Lincoln Days event.

“That’s how I make my judgments,” Niendick said. “I’ve got to get close to these candidates. I’ve got to see them. That’s how I get a feel for who they are and what they represent. When you’re talking to them face-to-face on a personal level, what a great advantage. What a great opportunity that is.

“If I get to know these candidates, I can talk to people that I know who haven’t had a chance to meet the candidates — and that’s how the good message is spread,” she added.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Sarah Kellogg provided information for this story.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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