Missouri governor becomes thorn in GOP’s Senate hopes

Missouri governor becomes thorn in GOP’s Senate hopes
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The legal and political challenges to Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’s (R) once-promising rise through the ranks have now become a broader problem for Republicans across the Show Me State. If Greitens goes down, he appears to be inclined to take down another rising star, Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), with him.

Greitens had originally been scheduled to go to trial this week on felony invasion of privacy charges stemming from an affair he had the year before he won election. Prosecutors dropped the charge on Monday, but could refile the charges.

Hawley is challenging Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillConservative group calls for ethics probe into McCaskill’s use of private plane Senate moderates hunt for compromise on family separation bill Election Countdown: Family separation policy may haunt GOP in November | Why Republican candidates are bracing for surprises | House Dems rake in record May haul | 'Dumpster fire' ad goes viral MORE (D) in November’s midterm elections. On the same day, voters will also decide on ballot measures that would raise the minimum wage and create a legal medical marijuana program.

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Those ballot measures have the potential to drive Democratic turnout, or at least attract millions in spending aimed at boosting turnout among working-class Democratic voters — especially minorities in Kansas City and St. Louis — who might otherwise skip Election Day.

Greitens had the option to move one of those ballot measures, a constitutional amendment concerning medical marijuana, to the August primary, when it would not coincide with the Senate race. Last week, he told Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s (R) office he would instead leave it on the November ballot, according to Maura Browning, Ashcroft’s director of communications.

That decision is seen as a direct shot at Hawley, the state’s top law enforcement official. Hawley has investigated Greitens and called on him to resign.

The Hawley investigation into the relationship between Greitens and a charity he founded prompted a prosecutor in St. Louis to charge the governor with computer tampering, based on evidence uncovered by Hawley’s office.

“This is a guy who will literally stop at nothing to save his political skin, including denigrating, on the record, for attribution, the legal skills of the attorney general,” said Gregg Keller, a Missouri-based GOP strategist who managed then-Sen. Jim Talent’s (R) reelection bid in 2006. “He’s a drag because he has waged war on Josh Hawley for no other reason than the fact that Josh Hawley is doing his job as attorney general.”

Republicans expected Democrats to qualify both the minimum wage measure and the three separate marijuana-related measures for November’s ballot. Ashcroft prepared to certify signatures as soon as possible so that the measures could appear on the August ballot, rather than the November ballot.

But Greitens decided to leave the medical marijuana question to November, when it could drive Democratic turnout, with the full knowledge his actions could make it more difficult for Hawley to beat McCaskill.

One source said Greitens’s sentiment came down to two words: Screw Hawley.

A spokesman in Greitens’s office disputed that Greitens used that language or that politics played a role in his decision to leave the November ballot as-is.

“Regarding the notion that politics has played into this, that’s ludicrous,” the spokesman, Parker Briden, told The Hill. “That never entered the picture until this fictional narrative was invented by a few operatives hoping to drive the Republican Party apart.”

Hawley’s campaign declined to comment.

Using ballot measures to drive turnout is hardly uncommon, in Missouri or around the country. In 2004, 11 states voted on initiatives to ban same-sex marriage in hopes of exciting conservative voters as President George W. Bush sought reelection.

In 2006, Missouri voted for its own same-sex marriage ban — though the Democratic governor at the time, Jay Nixon, opted to put that proposed constitutional amendment on the August primary ballot. That November, McCaskill beat Talent by fewer than 50,000 votes.

Both minimum wage increases and medical marijuana initiatives are broadly popular with voters. Of the 30 minimum wage increases that have appeared on ballots across the country since 1912, only two were defeated — both in 1996, in Missouri and Montana. Sixteen states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes via ballot measures; Florida, where a ballot measure needs 60 percent of the vote to pass, was the most recent to reject a medical marijuana measure, in 2014.

But there is little evidence that ballot measures themselves, even those on hot-button issues like raising the minimum wage or banning same-sex marriage, actually drive voters to the polls. Instead, Missouri Republicans fear those measures will inspire Democratic-leaning groups like labor unions to pour millions into turning out the vote, on top of their support for McCaskill.

“The real challenge on our side is going to be to try and match the base intensity that the Democrats clearly have,” said John Hancock, a former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. “There’s no needed impetus, it seems to me, to generate Democrat base turnout. Whether you put an initiative on the ballot or not, they’re going to be red-hot smoking, regardless.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN analyst Kirsten Powers: Melania's jacket should read 'Let them eat cake' CNN's Cuomo confronts Lewandowski over 'womp womp' remark Sessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance MORE’s approval ratings in Missouri, a state he won by 18 percentage points, remain relatively strong compared to the rest of the country. Republicans said Greitens is the real drag on the state GOP.

“Overall, the Republican brand is going to be tarnished by Gov. Greitens in every election that occurs,” said Scott Dieckhaus, a St. Louis-based Republican strategist. “First and foremost, he has more headlines than any Republican in the state.”

Missouri lawmakers will return to Jefferson City on Friday for a special session to consider impeachment. Most prominent Republicans have called on Greitens to spare the spectacle and resign.

“We’ve got to get through this Greitens business,” Hancock said. “If Greitens remains a divisive figure through the election, I think that bodes very ill for us.”