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Knives Out Against Eric Greitens
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Knives Out Against Eric Greitens

Two weeks before Missouri’s GOP Senate primary, nobody’s yet landed a killshot on the disgraced former governor’s campaign. Outside groups are trying to change that.

If we’ve learned anything about Republican politics in the last few years, it’s that it’s amazing how potent a combination of no-holds-barred partisanship and a complete lack of shame are in warding off political scandal. Rep. Duncan Hunter coasted to reelection in 2018 despite having already been indicted on an open-and-shut case of campaign finance fraud. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s hobnobbing with out-and-out white nationalists, past embrace of looney-tunes conspiracies, and assorted other embarrassments didn’t prevent her from breezing through her primary this year. Rep. Matt Gaetz, reportedly under investigation for sex trafficking (a charge he denies), seems likely to do the same. You may be able to think of other examples.

But a few races this year have seemed to suggest an outer limit to that strategy. In May, Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s eye-popping blizzard of cornball scandals proved just enough for an establishment-backed state senator to knock him out in his North Carolina primary. And now, two weeks before Missouri Republicans go to the polls on August 2, the same fate may befall former governor and Senate candidate Eric Greitens.

Comparing Greitens to Cawthorn only goes so far. The basic gripe about Cawthorn, the youngest serving member of Congress at 26, was that he was an unserious goofball in over his head. The behavior of which Greitens has been accused is far more sinister. There was the lurid scandal that drove him from office in the first place, an extramarital affair involving alleged coercion and blackmail. Greitens—admitting the affair but denying the blackmail—resigned in 2018, impeachment hot on his heels. (Greitens faced a campaign-finance scandal around the same time, but while his campaign was slapped with a six-figure fine, an ethics commission ultimately found no evidence of wrongdoing by him personally on that front.)

Since then, Greitens has somehow managed to attract still more alarming claims: His wife Sheena filed for divorce in 2020 and has since accused him in sworn testimony of becoming physically abusive toward her and their two children as his career unraveled.

Nevertheless, when Greitens took to Fox News last year to announce his intention to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Roy Blunt, even his staunchest political enemies fretted he had a shot. The shocking behavior of which Greitens was accused undoubtedly hurt his vote-share ceiling, but he still boasted a significant floor of support: the quarter or so of Missouri Republicans who accepted Greitens’ characterization of himself as the victim of a left-wing witch hunt. And the fact that he’s running a totally shameless campaign anyway has freed him up to lean in on the sort of controversy-courting antics that appear to some as “genuine MAGA outsider,” like a recent “RINO hunting” ad in which he breached a house along with a men armed with guns and flashbangs.

Greitens has used the ethics commission’s finding of no personal wrongdoing in the campaign-finance charge to trumpet that he has been “completely exonerated” of everything anybody has ever accused him of doing; he has also denounced his ex-wife as “a woman with a documented history of mental illness and emotional abusive behavior,” and his lawyer has insisted his son’s injuries were sustained while “roughhousing with his brother.”

There’s no runoff election in Missouri: In a crowded primary, with the anti-Greitens vote split two or three ways, the smart money has been that he could plausibly squeak through with the nomination.

“I’m very worried about it,” Gregg Keller, a prominent Missouri GOP strategist, told The Dispatch last year. “Eric Greitens is sitting on a solid floor in a Republican primary on election day of between 25 and 35 percent.” (Keller has since begun consulting for a PAC affiliated with one of Greitens’ competitors in the race, state attorney general Eric Schmitt.)

Over the past year, things have seemed to play out just as that line of analysis predicted. Three other viable candidates have piled into the race, including Schmitt and U.S. Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long. (A couple other less-viable candidates, including gun-toting lawyer Mark McCloskey, have hopped in too.) Through it all, Greitens has held onto his 25ish percent in the polls—but that’s been enough to give him an average 5-point edge over second-place Schmitt.

Now, however, it’s justified to wonder whether that narrative is starting to crack. State Republican donors have poured money into a Super PAC, Show Me Values, intended to sandbag Greitens’ chances by hammering his liabilities into the minds of state voters. They’ve put $1.5 million into the race already on ads rehashing the scandals that lost him the governor’s job, and leaning particularly hard into the allegations from Sheena Greitens, which are newest, least widely known, and most serious.

The hardest-hitting ad simply reads verbatim from an affidavit filed by Sheena Greitens in March: “I became afraid for my safety and that of our children due to Eric’s unstable and coercive behavior,” the narrator reads. “Physical violence toward our children … cuffing our then-3-year-old across the face, yanking him around by his hair. A swollen face, bleeding gums, and a loose tooth. He said ‘Dad had hit him.’”

“I wanted to protect our children,” the ad finishes, “because I was afraid of what Eric would do.”

After a few weeks of this, Show Me Values commissioned the Tarrance Group, a reputable national Republican data firm, to re-poll the race. They found a significant drop-off for Greitens at only 16 percent, behind Hartzler at 24 and Schmitt at 28, with a 4-point margin of error.

One poll is only ever one data point, of course, and that goes double for a poll whose results align with the partisan interests of the group that commissioned it, even if it is methodologically sound. For his part, Greitens is scoffing it off: “Fake poll numbers peddled by grifters are an albatross in the political world and Gov. Greitens will become the next U.S. Senator from Missouri,” campaign manager Dylan Johnson told The Dispatch in a statement.

That said, the poll itself is guaranteed to have at least one tangible result: reassuring Show Me Values’ donors that the group is making an impact, so they should keep the money flowing. Missouri voters should expect to hear a lot more of Sheena Greitens’ testimony between now and August 2. 

Some of Greitens’ opponents are simply hoping that’s enough. While Hartzler has taken Greitens head-on—calling for him to drop out of the race, denouncing him as an honorless liar in campaign ads, saying she’d pledge to support the ultimate winner of the primary so long as it wasn’t him—Team Schmitt has opted to try to maximize his share of the anti-Greitens pool by focusing fire on Hartzler. One recent ad from his affiliated Save Missouri Values PAC calls her “part of the D.C. swamp” and accuses her of “getting richer off our tax dollars.” 

Of course, one more elephant in the room has yet to be consulted. Donald Trump hasn’t picked a candidate to endorse, although it’s plainly not for lack of attention: He gave a signal-boost that stopped short of endorsing Rep. Billy Long back in March, and this month did the opposite to Hartzler, saying in a post to his site Truth Social that “I don’t think she has what it takes to take on the Radical Left Democrats, together with their partner in the destruction of our Country, the Fake News Media and, of course, the deceptive and foolish RINOs.” 

It’s a heavy blow to Hartzler, who had performed well in polls and lined up a laundry list of important Republican endorsements, including a pile of current midwestern senators and her own state’s soon-to-be senior Sen. Josh Hawley. (Schmitt has been endorsed by two current senators, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz.)

Whether Trump could decide at the last minute to throw Greitens a lifeline remains to be seen. During an interview on One America News last week in which the interviewer urged him to support Greitens, Trump initially demurred: “He’s the one the Democrats legitimately want to run against.” But he later hedged: “Eric is tough and he’s smart. A little controversial, but I’ve endorsed controversial people before. So we’ll see what happens.” 

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.