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Eric Greitens Tries Again
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Eric Greitens Tries Again

Three years after lurid scandals sank the Missouri governor, he's trying to restart his career with a run for Senate.

Three years ago, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ political career was at an apparent end. A woman with whom he’d had an affair had publicly accused him of sexual blackmail and violence, and his own attorney general had opened an investigation into a possible campaign finance crime. Deserted by his own state party, facing likely impeachment, Greitens announced his resignation that May.

Recently, however, Greitens has been popping up again—on Tucker Carlson, at public events around Missouri. He launched an internet show and spent thousands on PR to improve his statewide public image. And now the former governor is attempting a comeback in earnest: He took to Fox News last month to announce that he would run for U.S. Senate in 2022.

Greitens enters the race as an undeniable contender: A Remington Research/Missouri Scout poll last week put him at 40 percent support, compared to 39 percent for state attorney general Eric Schmitt. But with shocking scandals still fresh in voters’ minds, a lack of allies in the state, and several other strong challengers preparing to enter the race, whether the former governor can turn back the clock remains to be seen.

It wasn’t long ago that Greitens was hailed as a rising star in the GOP. A former Navy SEAL, he stormed into politics in 2015 on a gubernatorial platform of cleaning up state corruption. He had no political experience but several political advantages, including a strong résumé, a gift for staying on message, and some big-time national connections: Nick Ayers, the high-powered consultant who would go on to serve as Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, consulted for the campaign. Grassroots conservative groups got excited about his fiery anti-establishment rhetoric. After winning a four-way primary with 35 percent of the vote, Democrat-turned-Republican Greitens defeated Republican-turned-Democrat Chris Koster by 6 points in the 2016 general election.

“He kind of took a page out of Trump’s playbook,” said Jim Lembke, a former state senator who was a strong Greitens supporter during the governor’s race. “‘I’m gonna go clean up the swamp in Jefferson City, I’m going to throw all the lobbyists down the steps of the Capitol, I’m going to get rid of all the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.’ That worked for him in that governor’s race.”

The good times ended for Greitens in early 2018. In January, the married governor admitted to having an affair during the campaign with his hairdresser. But the story immediately got stranger: That same day, a local news station released a recording of the woman claiming that Greitens had blindfolded her, taken a nude photo of her, and threatened to release it publicly if she told anyone about their liaison. The woman had not gone public with the claim herself; rather, her then-husband had secretly recorded her confessing it to him, then taken the recording to the press.

When the Republican-controlled state legislature launched an investigation, the woman subsequently testified that Greitens had been verbally and physically abusive toward her. After interviewing her, her ex-husband, and other witnesses, investigators announced they found her allegations credible. A criminal investigation was opened (and later dropped). The legislature began to prepare impeachment proceedings. When Missouri’s then-attorney general Josh Hawley subsequently announced that Greitens’ campaign might have committed a campaign finance crime, it almost felt like piling on. Greitens initially made as if he was going to fight the accusations—but abruptly changed course in May and resigned.

But Greitens never fully lost one thing: the support of his base. Even in the thick of the scandal, more than half of state Republicans said he shouldn’t resign. Having spent the intervening years pushing the narrative that the accusations against him were nothing more than a political witch hunt, Greitens started looking for an opportunity to make a comeback. 

Some thought he might try to pick up where he left off by primarying Gov. Mike Parson, his own former lieutenant governor, in 2020. But allies said that path was made more difficult both by the pandemic and his divorce from his wife. 

“The circle of people that had played some role either in his campaign or in his time in office, in contributing to his success, we were pretty adamant about he should run for governor in 2020,” said John Lamping, a former state senator who advised Greitens during his 2016 campaign and stint in office. “I think when he ultimately got divorced, then the enthusiasm for him even doing that started to wane immeasurably. If you can’t make up with your wife, how can you make up with the citizens of Missouri?”

The next big opportunity was to challenge Sen. Roy Blunt, who was up for reelection in 2022. With Blunt’s reputation as an institutionalist and his status as a member of Senate GOP leadership, Greitens hoped to stage another insider-versus-outsider campaign that mirrored the one he used to great effect in 2016.

“When he started appearing regularly on Steve Bannon’s podcast network … then the writing was on the wall,” Lamping said. “You’ve seen Bannon and his whole cohort now have gone through the process of trying to establish—they’re trying to get clients in various races around the country. And when that all came to be, then it was a question of when, not if.” 

But before Greitens could pull the trigger, Blunt shocked the state, announcing on March 8 that he would not not seek a third term in the Senate. “I think the country, in the last decade or so, has sort of fallen off the edge with too many politicians saying, ‘If you vote for me, I’ll never compromise on anything,’” Blunt told a local reporter in announcing his departure.

Now, instead of a one-on-one match, Greitens was looking at an open field. 

Gregg Keller, a prominent Missouri GOP strategist, doesn’t hide his animosity toward the former governor: “Eric Greitens is a woman-beater and a blackmailer and a liar and a thief.” But he doesn’t count Greitens out of the race, either: “I’m very worried about it. … Eric Greitens is sitting on a solid floor in a Republican primary on election day of between 25 and 35 percent.”

For Keller, the biggest question is whether Republicans who want to see Greitens lose will coalesce around another candidate, or whether the field will fragment again.

“The way I do the simple math is, let’s split the baby and let’s say that he’s sitting on a hard 30 percent. I think if it’s a three-way race, I think it becomes very interesting, and you see a situation where Greitens could possibly get in. I think in a four-way race, he probably becomes the favorite.”

So far, only Greitens and Schmitt have entered the race, but other prominent Republicans are scoping out bids, including businessman John Brunner and three of the state’s U.S. representatives: Ann Wagner, Vicky Hartzler, and Jason Smith.

Regardless of how large the field grows, some aren’t sure Greitens’ floor will remain so high. Lembke pointed to Greitens’ disastrous interview last week with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who repeatedly cut through the former governor’s talking points and conspiratorial allegations about his scandals and accusers. “It was a trainwreck,” Lembke said. “That’s exactly what’s going to happen to Eric, coming from many different fronts. And I don’t see how you sustain your floor when you’ve got that kind of bombardment coming your way.”

In recent days, Greitens has received some splashy national endorsements from figures close to the former president, including from Trump’s former personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former adviser Steve Cortes. But in order to sustain momentum, he’ll need more than good name ID and Trumpworld connections—he’ll need to recapture the statewide enthusiasm that put him over the top in 2016. Some former allies say that, so far, the support from grassroots networks just isn’t there. Not only that, he isn’t even pursuing it.

“There are grassroots people that’ll go knock doors and put up yard signs and go to your parade, and those people are great. They’re a huge part of the campaign,” said Lamping. “But then there’s grassroots people that are knowledgeable, sophisticated, have sophisticated friends, are in touch with donors. And are perceived to be thoughtful political people. And none of those people are involved in this campaign. We’ve hardly even talked to him. He’s not asking us to get involved. This is entirely coming from D.C. It’s just Bannon. … He’s gotten the Giuliani endorsement, and Cortes—that’s the campaign he’s setting out to run. There’s nobody in Missouri, like nobody.

“I’ve got a pretty good, maybe 50 or 100 influential people that I might communicate with … We’ll share what we’re thinking, who we might support or not support. … And none of those people—he’s not in touch with them, none of them are going to support him. They all kind of feel the way I feel, which is, he made a lot of really bad choices, you know? And so we’re not so confident in your ability to make good decisions. And so therefore we’re not going to. You haven’t asked us; we’re not going to. Good luck.”

And then there’s the matter of Josh Hawley—who has, of course, since become Senator Josh Hawley. Although Greitens and Hawley ran on the same ticket in 2016 (the former for governor, the latter for attorney general), the two have never been close allies. (Neither Hawley nor Greitens responded to requests for comment for this piece.)

“Hawley and Greitens were extremely at odds, right?” said Lamping. “They both had this massive political ambition—and you can’t have two presidential candidates from one state.”

But rivalry boiled over into open animosity during Greitens’ 2018 unraveling. Hawley’s April announcement of a campaign finance investigation was met with open derision by the governor, who sneered that his attorney general was “better at press conferences than the law” and accused him of abetting a leftist smear campaign. Hawley was then locked in a heated race against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, and here Greitens was trying to turn Missouri Republicans against him. 

Now, of course, the script is flipped: It’s Hawley who holds the more powerful position, and who enjoys broad and ongoing popularity among Missouri conservatives. 

“Hawley is much more popular in the state than Greitens is,” Lamping said. “It’s not even close. … Hawley will never be primaried, because you couldn’t beat him in a primary, under current circumstances.”

For Hawley to endorse one of Greitens’ competitors would be a heavy blow to the former governor’s comeback chances. So far, Hawley hasn’t signaled that he’s ready to let bygones be bygones: He told reporters last week that he stands by his decision to call for the governor’s resignation in 2018. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll directly campaign for one of Greitens’ competitors either: “I imagine I’ll support the Republican nominee, I mean, whoever it is,” he said.  

“I don’t know if I can imagine Hawley doing that,” Lembke said. “I guess it’s possible. If I was in his position—just strategically, because, okay, you come in, you endorse Schmitt, and there’s five others in the field. Then you’ve made five other enemies, politically. I would be very surprised if he didn’t keep his powder dry as far as any kind of endorsement.”

At the same time, even if he chooses not to make an endorsement, Hawley wields one very powerful behind-the-scenes weapon as well: He has the ear of former President Trump. If Trump endorses someone besides Greitens in the GOP primary, the former governor’s resurgence could well sputter out.

“You know, [Trump’s] very interested in this race because I think he understands the importance of the seat,” Hawley said last week. “I think it’s vital to hold the seat, so we’ll see.” 

“I think where Josh goes is going to be watched by a lot of people,” Keller said. “I think obviously where President Trump goes is going to be watched by a lot of people. I think Donald Trump Jr. could potentially have some influence. I don’t know that the endorsements that have come through yet are going to have a whole lot of influence on the election here in Missouri.”

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.