ST. LOUIS (AP) — Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is banking on Republican voters forgiving his past indiscretions when they choose a U.S. Senate nominee next August. Many in the GOP establishment are hoping they don't forget.
Greitens resigned as governor in 2018 amid an investigation of an extramarital affair with his St. Louis hairdresser allegedly involving bondage and blackmail and leading to criminal and legislative investigations. The allegation of a photo taken without the woman's consent for the purposes of blackmail led to a felony criminal charge, which was eventually dropped.
Now, he is among the frontrunners in a crowded field of Republican Senate candidates that includes U.S. House members Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and the St. Louis lawyer who made headlines by pointing a gun at racial injustice protesters outside his home, Mark McCloskey.
Some Republican leaders worry that Greitens could win the GOP nomination but lose in the general election, ceding a crucial Senate seat in what should be a safely red state. Among them is Hartzler, citing one major demographic in particular.
“There’s hardly any women in the state who will vote for him," she said in a phone interview.
John Hancock, a longtime Missouri Republican strategist, agreed.
“Certainly suburban women would be a concern, but I think the problems extend far beyond that,” said Hancock, whose firm has done research for Hartzler’s campaign.
It wouldn’t be the first time Missouri women played a pivotal role in deciding a Senate race. In 2012, Democrat Claire McCaskill carried women voters by 22 percentage points in easily defeating the late Republican Todd Akin. The lopsided election followed a TV interview in which Akin, a staunch abortion opponent, said pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape” was uncommon because women’s bodies were able to prevent it.
Senate Republican leadership concurs that a Greitens primary victory would hand the seat to Democrats. But so far they’ve taken a hands-off approach, convinced Greitens’ campaign will implode as he struggles to raise money and continues to be dogged by the scandal, according to two Republican strategists working on Senate races, who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. That could change if Greitens candidacy gains steam, the strategists said.
On Thursday, Sen. Rick Scott, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told guest host Kurt Schlicter on Hugh Hewitt's radio show that there are “real concerns” that Greitens could lose to a Democrat, though he said he was confident Republican primary voters would choose someone else.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said at a Thursday news conference that he hasn’t made a decision yet about whether to get involved in any primaries because primary season is still in its infancy. But he said that may change if Republicans were “on the verge of nominating somebody who is unelectable.”
Federal campaign finance filings show Greitens had about $200,000 in his campaign account at the end of September, but was also about $143,000 in debt. Separately, two pro-Greitens super PACs have emerged, which are financed by two Republican megadonors.
Missouri First Action, which has yet to disclose fundraising numbers, announced earlier this month that Home Depot CEO Bernie Marcus donated $1 million. A separate pro-Greitens super PAC called Team PAC said it has raised $2.5 million from Dick Uihlein, a billionaire shipping supply magnate.
So far, no other donors to those groups have emerged.
Republican voters in Missouri have shown a willingness to forgive — former President Donald Trump carried the state by 19 percentage points in 2016 despite being caught on video making lewd remarks about women and bragging about infidelity. He carried Missouri by 15 percentage points in 2020.
All of the Missouri GOP Senate candidates are courting Trump's endorsement. Greitens has the backing of several Trump insiders, including Michael Flynn and Rudy Giuliani. He appears regularly on Steve Bannon’s podcast. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Trump campaign adviser and the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., is the national chairwoman of Greitens’ campaign, and Trump’s pollster, Tony Fabrizio, is working for Greitens.
Hewitt, while interviewing Trump earlier this month, implored him not to endorse Greitens.
“That's a nightmare, Mr. President,” Hewitt said. “We'll lose that seat."
“Well, that's an interesting opinion, that's true. He’s right now leading by quite a bit," Trump said, apparently referencing early polling showing Greitens at or near the top among GOP contenders.
Hartzler, acknowledging Greitens is an early frontrunner, is taking direct aim at his character.
“I follow the rules,” Hartzler said in her first TV ad, which launched in October. “I stay out of trouble. And when I need to see a hairdresser, I make an appointment.”
For now, Greitens' other opponents are mostly ignoring his past. Long called it “old news.”
“That’s been out there,” Long told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "Everybody’s run that thing through the mill. I’ll let other people talk about those issues. I want to talk about issues that matter to taxpayers and voters.”
Greitens frequently appears on conservative TV networks, radio and podcasts but has largely avoided Missouri media and made few public appearances.
Greitens' campaign declined interview requests and didn't respond directly to emailed questions. But the campaign manager, Dylan Johnson, provided a statement on Saturday.
“Governor Greitens is the only America First candidate in this race who will fight for the people of Missouri, just like he has done as a Navy SEAL and as governor," Johnson said. "The political establishment and RINOs are frightened of losing their power to someone who would be a champion for the people.”
Greitens, a charismatic former Navy SEAL officer and Rhodes scholar, was widely seen as a rising star in GOP politics after being elected governor in 2016. Then, in January 2018, news broke of an extramarital affair that occurred in 2015, before he was elected.
The woman said Greitens invited her to his home, where he blindfolded her, bound her and removed her clothes. He then allegedly took a photo.
“Don’t even mention my name to anybody at all, because if you do, I’m going to take these pictures, and I’m going to put them everywhere I can," she quoted Greitens as saying.
She said the encounter left her crying, but admitted to a relationship that went on for several more months.
It was the alleged photo that resulted in a criminal charge of invasion of privacy. Greitens accused St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, a Democrat, of a political vendetta.
In short order, a Missouri House committee began investigating and found the woman's allegations credible, and Greitens faced a second felony charge in St. Louis, accused of providing his political fundraiser with the donor list of his veterans charity. Greitens had denied any criminal wrongdoing.
The blackmail charge was dropped in May 2018, three days into jury selection, when a judge ruled that Gardner would have to provide a statement under oath about her investigation at the request of Greitens’ attorneys, who had repeatedly criticized her handling of the case.
The judge appointed Kansas City prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to review the case. A week after Greitens resigned in June 2018, Baker announced that she believed the woman's claim that Greitens took an unauthorized and compromising photo but that there wasn’t enough evidence to merit a criminal charge.
The fundraising charge was dropped when Greitens resigned. Greitens and his wife, Sheena, divorced last year.
The former FBI agent Gardner hired to investigate Greitens in the invasion of privacy case, William Tisaby, was indicted in 2019 on six counts of perjury and one count of evidence tampering. The indictment accuses him of lying during a deposition in preparation for Greitens’ trial and concealing notes taken during an interview with the former governor’s accuser. His trial is scheduled for March.
Meanwhile, Missouri’s chief disciplinary counsel has accused Gardner of concealing evidence that might have helped Greitens’ case. She faces a disciplinary hearing in February. Gardner has denied any wrongdoing.
Greitens' political rebirth was seemingly fueled in February, when the Missouri Ethics Commission ruled on a campaign ethics investigation. The commission found “probable cause” that Greitens’ campaign broke the law by not reporting that it cooperated with a PAC in 2016, and required payment of a $38,000 fine. But it also “found no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Eric Greitens, individually.”
Greitens said the ruling “fully exonerated” him.
AP Congressional Reporter Brian Slodysko contributed to this report.
Jim Salter, The Associated Press