Greitens Senate bid creates headache for GOP
Disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens’s (R.) campaign to succeed retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R) in Missouri is causing headaches for Senate Republicans, who fear that he could endanger their chances of holding an otherwise safe seat for the GOP.
Republicans inside and outside of Missouri have been weighing their options to ensure that Greitens doesn’t emerge as the clear favorite in the race. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who launched a Senate campaign last month, met with GOP leaders in Washington recently, and party operatives are scrambling to recruit a handful of other Republicans into the race.
But Greitens has sought to tie his political fortunes to former President Trump, and he has powerful allies in the former president’s orbit, stirring concerns among some Republicans that he could ultimately land Trump’s coveted endorsement in the primary race.
“The political reality on the ground here in Missouri is that if Republicans want to run the risk of losing this seat, then there’s a real possibility for that if Eric Greitens were to win the primary,” said Gregg Keller, a Missouri-based Republican strategist.
Among those in Trump World who have already backed Greitens’s campaign are Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and Trump’s personal attorney, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka.
His allies have signaled that they believe an endorsement from Trump himself is imminent, though people familiar with the former president’s thinking say that he’s likely to remain on the sidelines for now.
The nightmare scenario for Greitens’s Republican critics is that a splintered GOP primary field could allow the former governor to win the nomination with only a plurality of support. They fear that by nominating Greitens, Republicans would give Democrats a key opening in a state that has lurched to the right in recent years.
“If you have a few people in the race, you get into the scenario where he could potentially win the thing with 25 to 30 percent of the vote, and that would put the seat firmly back in play for Democrats,” Keller said.
A handful of Republicans have expressed interest in running for Blunt’s seat in 2022, including Reps. Jason Smith, Ann Wagner and Vicky Hartzler.
Some Republicans had hoped that Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, the son of former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), would run for the seat, believing that he could unite Republican voters in an otherwise crowded primary contest. But he announced last month that he would not seek Blunt’s seat next year.
“It’s not a question of who can beat Eric Greitens,” one Republican strategist familiar with Senate races said. “Anyone can beat him. He’s a mess. This is about avoiding crowding out actual, electable Republicans and, consequently, letting Eric Greitens be the candidate. That’s my concern.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), has said that his group has no plans to get involved in open-seat primaries in 2022.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has asserted that he is focused on ensuring that the GOP runs candidates capable of beating Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections, telling Politico in a February interview that “the only thing I care about is electability.”
And despite the NRSC’s expected neutrality in open-seat nominating contests, the McConnell-aligned super PAC Senate Leadership Fund is known to get involved in primaries when it believes a candidate could jeopardize the GOP’s chances of winning.
One Republican source said that the group is keeping an eye on the Missouri Senate primary and has not ruled out involvement in the race, but hasn’t yet made any final decisions on the matter.
Still, Republicans concede that they cannot afford to take any chances in Missouri. The party needs to gain only one seat in the Senate next year to recapture control of the upper chamber. But they also face a tougher map than Democrats, one that requires them to defend 20 seats, including several in competitive battleground states.
A Republican loss in Missouri would help Democrats pad their ultra-narrow majority in the Senate, an especially tempting prospect given that Democrats are facing expectedly tough races in states like Georgia and Arizona.
Greitens’s Senate campaign is an attempt at a political comeback following his tumultuous and scandal-ridden year and a half in the Missouri governor’s mansion.
He was elected in 2016 on his credentials as a political outsider and former Navy SEAL. But despite his initial meteoric rise in GOP circles, Greitens’s political fortunes tumbled amid allegations that he carried on an affair with his hairdresser and threatened to blackmail her with nude photos he had taken of her if she revealed their relationship.
Greitens has acknowledged the affair but has denied the blackmail allegations.
He later faced felony charges related to the alleged blackmail scheme, as well as for allegations that he had improperly taken a donor list from a nonprofit he had founded to use in his gubernatorial campaign.
Greitens resigned in June 2018 as GOP leaders in the state legislature met to consider whether to pursue his impeachment. The criminal charges against Greitens have been dropped, and he has repeatedly claimed that he has been exonerated of any wrongdoing while casting the inquiries into his alleged conduct as a political witch hunt.
Regardless of his denials of wrongdoing, many Republicans fear that Greitens is too much of a liability, even in a state that is seen as safe for the GOP and that Trump carried twice by double-digit margins.
Several Republicans in conversations with The Hill drew parallels between Greitens and former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), whose explosive claim that women who are the victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant helped tank his 2012 Senate bid against former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt confronted Greitens with that comparison in a heated interview last month, telling the former governor: “I’m afraid you’ll be Todd Akin 2.0.”
Still, there are signs that Greitens may still command the support of at least some Missouri voters.
An internal poll commissioned last month by Greitens’s campaign and conducted by Trump’s pollster Tony Fabrizio showed Greitens holding a wide lead over a field of current and potential GOP candidates, with 48 percent support among Republican voters. Schmitt was the only other candidate to score in double digits at 11 percent.
Democratic leaders see a potential Greitens nomination as their best bet for flipping Blunt’s seat next year, a prospect that appeared unlikely until recently. A handful of Democrats are already eyeing the race, including former state Sen. Scott Sifton, who has already announced his candidacy, and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who has expressed interest in running for the seat.
“The Democrats know the same thing that we know,” Keller, the Missouri-based strategist, said. “That if Eric Greitens is the nominee, then Democrats have a very good chance of winning this seat.”