Republicans are making a final push to shut out former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens in the state’s closely watched GOP Senate primary, fearing that him clinching the GOP nomination on Tuesday could put an otherwise safe Republican seat at serious risk in November.
In the final days before the Aug. 2 primary, an anti-Greitens super PAC is running TV ads highlighting allegations of domestic violence against the disgraced former governor. Top Republican donors — including Pete Ricketts, the ultra-wealthy governor of Nebraska — are pouring money into the effort, hoping to deal one final blow to Greitens’s campaign.
There are signs that the effort to weaken Greitens is working. Once seen as the front-runner in the race, the former governor has sunk into third place in recent polls and has been replaced at the front of the pack by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
“What you’ve seen here is really a challenge of trying to beat [Greitens] down,” one Republican strategist involved in the Missouri Senate race said. “Equally to what we’ve seen with Greitens getting knocked down to around that 20 point range is the massive rise of Schmitt. And that combination is what’s really changed the outcome of the race so far.”
One survey released last week by The Hill and Emerson College showed Greitens running 17 points behind Schmitt and 5 points behind Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) in the primary. That’s a staggering change from the same poll conducted in June that found Greitens leading Schmitt by 6 points.
Greitens, who resigned as governor amid scandal only 1 1/2 years into his first term, has brushed off his recent polling deficit, calling the surveys “fake” and accusing his opponents of pushing out inaccurate data in an effort to weaken him. He has also compared the attacks against him to those faced by former President Trump, calling the allegations false.
“Here’s what we’re hearing from a lot of people who’ve seen time and time again the way President Trump was falsely attacked, they’ve seen how I have been falsely attacked,” Greitens told reporters in Kansas City, Mo., on Monday. “A lot of these grassroots patriots are standing up and they’re that much more determined to fight for me.”
Of course, Greitens has been underestimated before. Polling in the lead-up to his 2016 win de él in the Missouri gubernatorial race showed a much tighter contest between him and former state Attorney General Chris Koster (D) than what actually played out on Election Day.
But Greitens, a onetime rising star in the GOP, has fallen from political grace in the years since he won the Missouri governor’s mansion.
Not long into his term as governor, he ran up against allegations that he carried on an affair with his hairdresser and threatened to blackmail her with nude photos he had taken of her if she revealed their relationship. Greitens has acknowledged the affair but has denied the blackmail allegations.
He later faced felony charges related to the alleged blackmail scheme, as well as for accusations that he improperly took a donor list from a nonprofit he had founded to use in his gubernatorial campaign.
Greitens resigned in June 2018 as GOP leaders in the state legislature met to consider whether to pursue his impeachment. The criminal charges against Greitens have been dropped, and he has repeatedly said he has been exonerated.
The latest blow to Greitens’s personal image came this spring when his ex-wife, Sheena Greitens, testified under oath that the former governor had assaulted her and their 3-year-old son. Those allegations have been among the hardest-hitting in the effort to weaken Greitens’s momentum in the Senate race.
Greitens’s personal and professional baggage has stirred deep worries among Republicans both in Missouri and in Washington, giving way to fears that his nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) would create an opening for Democrats to recapture the seat in a state that has otherwise moved firmly in the GOP’s direction over the years.
Senate Republicans also can’t afford to take any chances this year. While they’re targeting a handful of vulnerable Democratic incumbents in states like Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, Democrats also have opportunities to flip GOP-held Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio, among other states.
Whoever wins the Republican nomination next week will likely go on to face either Lucas Kunce, a former Marine running as a progressive, or Trudy Busch Valentine, a philanthropist and heiress to the Busch family beer fortune, in November.
Missouri Republicans have been burned before by controversial candidates.
The late former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) famously saw his political career collapse in 2012 after claiming that women’s bodies have a way of avoiding pregnancies in cases of “legitimate rape.” That remark ultimately helped sink his bid to oust former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and left him isolated from many top Republicans.
Of course, there’s still a wild card in the race: Trump. The former president hasn’t endorsed in the primary, though earlier this month he ruled out supporting Hartzler, saying that she doesn’t have “what it takes to take on the radical left Democrats.”
Greitens has some influential allies on his side. Kimberly Guilfoyle, the fiancée of Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., is serving as a national co-chair of Greitens’s Senate campaign, and the couple has continued to lobby Trump for his endorsement in the lead-up to the primary despite Greitens’s recent drop in the polls.
But Greitens isn’t the only candidate seeking Trump’s endorsement. Each of his top rivals — Schmitt, Hartzler and Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) — Have courted the former president, hoping to win his support from him in the primary. Schmitt is the only candidate to have held a fundraiser for his campaign at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla.
One former Trump campaign aide, however, said that the former president isn’t likely to endorse in the race before Tuesday.
“I think at this point, the primary is kind of all over the place,” the former aide said. “The polling is changing, there are a lot of competing voices. The president doesn’t want to get behind a losing horse, so I think he’s probably fine to wait and see and endorse after Tuesday.”
But Trump can be unpredictable in his political moves. In a July 9 interview with the conservative One America News Network, he left the door open to endorsing Greitens, even as he noted that Democrats would be eager to go up against such a controversial candidate.
“He’s the one the Democrats legitimately want to run against,” Trump said, later adding: “Eric is tough and he’s smart. A little controversial, but I’ve endorsed controversial people before.”