Disgraced former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is moving closer to a 2022 Senate bid, alarming top Republicans who worry he will jeopardize the party’s grip on the seat and imperil their prospects of seizing the majority.
Greitens — who resigned in mid-2018, less than two years into his term, following allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman who was not his wife — has been calling around to fellow Republicans to inform them of his deliberations, and many have come away convinced he’s running.
The maneuvering, which follows Republican Sen. Roy Blunt’s surprise retirement announcement last week, is giving Republicans nightmarish flashbacks to 2012, when they nominated a problematic Missouri Senate candidate, Todd Akin, who went on to lose the election.
The concerns have grown so serious that former President Donald Trump and those in his orbit have heard from Republicans inside and outside Missouri, who warn that Greitens would be the one GOP candidate who could lose to a Democrat, according to a person familiar with the conversations.
Republican leaders say they aren’t ruling out taking aggressive steps to stop Greitens from winning the nomination, including waging a slashing advertising campaign against him. Party officials — ranging from members of the Missouri congressional delegation to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s political operation — have been united in their worry about the former governor and spent the week having conversations about the situation, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Senate Leadership Fund, the principal Republican-aligned super PAC, has been engaged in talks about how to keep the former governor from endangering their hold on what should be a safe seat, given Missouri’s strong conservative tilt. People close to the National Republican Senatorial Committee have expressed apprehension about Greitens, though the organization is not expected to wade into open-seat primaries.
Missouri Republicans, meanwhile, have begun to contemplate how to prevent a splintered field of candidates from developing that could give Greitens a path. Top Republicans say they’ve yet to devise a plan for dealing with the former governor given that the primary isn’t until August 2022 but stress they’re keeping an eye on him.
“Greitens is a clear and present danger to botching the race for the GOP,” said Scott Reed, the former senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Senate Republicans have a narrow path to winning the majority in 2022. Each party holds 50 seats in the current Senate, and while the GOP has a few opportunities to seize Democratic-held seats, they’re playing defense in more states.
Senate GOP leaders have confronted similar battles against potentially problematic primary candidates. In the 2017 Alabama special election, they failed to stop accused child molester Roy Moore, who won the GOP nomination before losing to a Democrat. They fared better in 2020, when they thwarted controversial Kansas Republican Kris Kobach in the primary, paving the way for a general election win.
Some Republicans are skeptical that Greitens will be able to gain traction and say he’ll have a ceiling of support given his substantial baggage. But others think they would be in for a fight. A December survey of likely Republican primary voters, conducted by Remington Research Group, found Greitens trailing Blunt just 43 percent to 32 percent, indicating that he maintains a base.
Greitens is also benefiting from what is expected to be a wide-open field of Republican candidates, leading to concerns they will divvy up the vote and give the ex-governor a plurality. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft — the son of John Ashcroft, the former governor, senator and Bush-era attorney general — was regarded as someone who could have consolidated the party behind him but has opted against running.
“In official Washington, there’s a lot of concern because this was originally a seat that would be in Republican hands to stop the left,” said Gregg Keller, a longtime Missouri-based Republican strategist. “The easiest way to give this seat to a Biden acolyte is to have a divisive Republican primary, followed by someone incredibly damaged like Eric Greitens being the candidate in the general election.”
But Greitens would also face steep challenges. Some of the former political lieutenants who guided his successful 2016 campaign for governor aren’t expected to help him this time around, a list that includes campaign manager Austin Chambers and pollster Dave Sackett. The ex-governor has been calling around to operatives to put a team together.
Greitens has also lost some of his biggest contributors, including wealthy business executive David Humphreys, who gave more than $2 million to his 2016 campaign. Humphreys said there was “not a chance” he’d back a Greitens Senate bid, adding that he stood by his 2018 statement calling on the former governor to resign.
Greitens’ troubles began in Jan. 2018, when reports emerged that his hairstylist had accused him of sexual misconduct. The woman later testified to a state legislative investigative committee that, in 2015, as he was preparing to run for governor, Greitens had taken her to his basement, blindfolded her, bound her hands and coerced her into performing oral sex. The woman said Greitens had taken a picture of her naked and threatened to release it if she told anyone about the encounter.
She also testified that at various points in their relationship Greitens had slapped and grabbed her, shoved her to the ground, and called her a “whore.”
Greitens acknowledged engaging in an extramarital affair but denied blackmailing the woman, being violent or coercing her. He stepped down in June 2018 after making a deal with the St. Louis prosecutor’s office that, in exchange for his resignation, it would drop unrelated charges that he’d used a veterans charity he’d created to fundraise for his gubernatorial campaign, an alleged violation of campaign finance laws.
It was a stunning downfall for an up-and-coming politician who was once regarded as a potential future White House contender. But Greitens, a 46-year old, Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar and Navy SEAL veteran, is now attempting a comeback.
Greitens, a Democrat who switched parties before running for governor, has cast himself as the victim of a liberal conspiracy and a sloppy investigation, which involved an official with St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office who was accused of perjury. He has also reinvented himself as a loyalist of former President Donald Trump.
Greitens has been a frequent guest on former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon’s podcast and is being encouraged to run by Trump allies, including former NYPD Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and former White House aide Andrew Giuliani, the son of Trump attorney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Boris Epshteyn, another ex-Trump aide, recently took to Twitter to call Greitens a “MAGA Champion.”
“Gov. Greitens is proud to stand with President Trump for America First values. Eric has always fought for other people— as a Navy SEAL and as a governor,” said Dylan Johnson, a Greitens spokesperson. “Eric is talking with friends and fired-up supporters about how to continue his service.
Those who’ve spoken to Greitens say it’s apparent that Greitens is seeking redemption and is convinced he can win.
“At this point, if Eric wants to return to politics, what does he have to lose?” said Travis Brown, a veteran Republican lobbyist in the state.
But Trump advisers say it’s hard to imagine that the former president will endorse Greitens, particularly if other Trump allies enter the race. Republican Rep. Jason Smith, a staunch Trump loyalist, is among those contemplating a bid.
Greitens has an even bigger impediment to winning Trump’s support: Republican Sen. Josh Hawley. As state attorney general, Hawley was among the prominent Republicans who called on Greitens to step down, and the former governor was widely known to have despised Hawley for investigating him.
Hawley, who was elected to the Senate in 2018, has since become one of Trump’s closest allies. After Blunt announced his retirement, the ex-president called Hawley to sound him out about the race and to talk over the list of potential candidates, a group that also includes Reps. Ann Wagner and Billy Long and state Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
During the call, which was first reported by Punchbowl News, Trump and Hawley discussed whom Trump should support and agreed to stay in touch. Hawley, who’s received extensive outreach from potential candidates and has became a favorite of Trump supporters after objecting to the certification of the 2020 election, does not typically endorse in races and has so far remained neutral.
But for all the challenges Greitens faces, Republicans aren’t sleeping so easy.
“We’re talking about a man in Eric Greitens who we have every reason to believe is a woman-beater running for Senate in Missouri,” said Keller. “It’s very concerning.”