Why many Missouri Republicans fear Eric Greitens could win the state's Senate primary
Several notable U.S. Senate candidates were working the crowd at an annual Lincoln Dinner celebration put on by the Lafayette County Republican Party.
The recent event, at a packed gymnasium in Wellington, Mo., was an opportunity for diehard GOP voters in the rural county outside of Kansas City to mingle with hopefuls seeking to succeed the retiring Sen. Roy Blunt.
Rep. Billy Long was among the Senate candidates. He was passing out stickers asking voters if they were "Fed Up" with what was going on in Washington, D.C., a campaign moniker he's adopted since first running for the U.S. House in 2010.
Long is banking on the possibility that the race will get so nasty that Republican voters will wonder, he said, if "there is a fat auctioneer in Springfield we can vote for."
"If I can get some oxygen and get the people to know who I am, I can win the thing," Long said.
Long may be right about the tenor of Missouri's Senate contest, primarily because of one candidate who was absent from the Lincoln Dinner: former Gov. Eric Greitens.
His most boisterous critics believe he can win a 21-person Senate primary — even though Greitens resigned from office in 2018 following a series of scandals.
He's hoping Missouri Republicans will flock to his message that emphasizes ties to former President Donald Trump's agenda and approach.
"We need fighters who are willing to do what it takes to take our country back," Greitens told reporters back in February. "To take our country back from the left — and also fighters who are willing to take on the establishment, willing to take on the mainstream media."
But Greitens can't escape the shadow of scandal.
His ex-wife Sheena Greitens last month filed legal documentation in which she, under oath, accused the former governor of emotional and physical abuse.
He has denied her claims.
But combined with the 2018 allegations of sexual misconduct and campaign finance issues, some Republicans worry that if Greitens were to win the primary, it would place a Senate seat considered to be safely GOP in jeopardy.
Others stress that concern over Greitens is about more than just winning or losing an election. They worry about what would happen if Greitens wins and is able to possess a national platform to promote himself and his views.
"Once he gets the nomination, he's just going to tell everybody, 'Look, you have no choice but to support me,' " said Stephen Webber, an official with the Missouri AFL-CIO and former state Democratic Party chair. "And he's betting that taking back the Senate will be a powerful enough factor for people to back him."
"This messy, dark story"
When Sheena Greitens' under-oath statements became public, Kay Hoflander, a former Missouri GOP chair, says she had difficulty sleeping.
After two days, she decided to do something about it: She issued a statement calling for Greitens to get out of the race. And she said she was pleased when several other high-profile women involved with the state Republican Party also called for him to exit the contest.
"Some day his children will see this messy, dark story about their family — and they need to know that there were people who stood up for their mom," Hoflander said in an interview.
Unlike 2018, Greitens, whose campaign didn't respond to a request for comment, has steadfastly refused to drop out of the Senate race.
Instead, he's claimed without evidence that his ex-wife is involved in a scheme involving prominent Republicans like Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell. Both Greitens and his campaign amplified this message — which Sheena Greitens' attorney called a "conspiracy theory" — in friendly media interviews, including with former Trump aide Steve Bannon.
Sheena Greitens said she has documentation to back up her claims — which are playing out in front of a judge to move divorce-related proceedings to Texas.
Other notable Republicans, including Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, have called for Greitens to depart from the contest. "If you hit a woman or a child, you belong in handcuffs, not the United States Senate," Hawley tweeted in March.
"Burned a lot of bridges"
Concerns about Greitens' general election chances are only part of the story behind Missouri Republican angst around him.
After he became governor, Greitens made plenty of enemies among the state's political class — including elected officials like Hawley. He had a bad relationship with the GOP-controlled legislature, a body he derided as "third graders" after a contentious legislative session. Some of his policy initiatives alienated GOP figures. And many of his detractors found him to be profoundly hypocritical: Even though he chastised his opponents for relying on "secretive super PACs," some people connected to him started a politically active nonprofit that attacked sitting Republican legislators — and never revealed the funding sources.
"I think he has burned a lot of bridges," Hoflander said.
John Lamping is a former state senator who supported Greitens' gubernatorial bid, but is neutral in this year's Senate election. He said Greitens' estrangement from Missouri's Republican political class is a big driver in trying to get him out of the race.
"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 he doesn't care what they think."
Lamping said some of the things Greitens is espousing, including deposing McConnell as Senate Republican leader and repeating false claims that Trump actually won the 2020 election, are popular with GOP 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 hated 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."
The Trump card
Though Missouri isn't that far removed from being a competitive state for U.S. Senate contests, Trump won the state in 2016 and 2020 by large margins.
The former president hasn't endorsed anybody in Missouri's Senate race, but is being courted aggressively.
Hawley, for instance, has spoken with Trump often about the contest, while the former president has appeared at a fundraiser for Attorney General Eric Schmitt. And Greitens has received support from prominent people in Trump's orbit, including Bannon, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr.
Former President Trump put out a statement recently that praised Long, but stopped short of endorsing him. Long said Trump's backing could put him in a similar situation as Ohio's J.D. Vance, who saw his Senate fortunes rise after an endorsement.
But Long and Greitens have been behind in fundraising to Schmitt and Rep. Vicky Hartzler. (Both Schmitt and Greitens have supporting political action committees with millions of dollars to spend.) Most public polls show Greitens, Schmitt and Hartzler as the three top-tier candidates. The rest, including Long, are typically in the single digits of a race in which the primary winner could prevail with less than 30% of the vote.
There are other ways the major candidates are trying to stand out.
Hartzler received backing of key agricultural groups and top-level Missouri Republican leaders such as Hawley and former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond. She's developed a reputation for her socially conservative views, and used one of her first TV ads to stake out a position against transgender women playing women's sports.
Schmitt is also pointing to his legal advocacy against some of President Biden's agenda, including a scuttled vaccine mandate. He's also gone after COVID-19 restrictions in schools.
There are also two other candidates that are hoping to gain momentum: Senate President Dave Schatz, who dropped $2 million of his own money into the contest, and attorney Mark McCloskey, who gained widespread attention in 2020 when he and his wife brandished guns as protesters walked by their house.
"I don't like the drama"
Some attendees of the recent Lincoln Dinner noted that they're less interested in Greitens' personal drama and more curious about what the candidates are going to do about pressing concerns — such as how to bring inflation under control.
"The mudslinging doesn't really affect my pocketbook," said Mark Schroer, who works in Wellington's municipal government. "I want to know what they're going to do when they get to the U.S. Senate."
Eric Kolkmeyer, who runs a trucking company in Odessa, Mo., too is undecided on who he wants to replace Blunt. He said that he has some "favorites."
"I don't like the drama. I want the best candidate," Kolkmeyer said. "I want somebody who is issues-driven, that's personally aligned with me values-wise."
And even though some candidates like Greitens have castigated so-called insiders, Linda Niendick, who's Lafayette County's public administrator, said there's value in candidates making a direct pitch to GOP stalwarts like herself.
"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 said.
Missouri GOP voters will make the final call in the crowded race on Aug. 2.
And at least two Democratic candidates, Lucas Kunce and Trudy Busch Valentine, have the ability to mount well-funded and well-organized campaigns in November.
St. Louis Public Radio's Sarah Kellogg contributed to this story.
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