Campaign

Republicans scramble to halt Greitens in Missouri

Republicans are struggling to coalesce around a single alternative candidate to former Gov. Eric Greitens in Missouri’s open Senate race, elevating worries that they’ll be saddled with a baggage-laden candidate in a contest that should be a slam dunk.

Republicans are biting their nails over polls showing Greitens at or near the top of a crowded primary field, and this week, big GOP names got off the sidelines. Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), one of the most popular Republicans in the state, threw his support behind Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R), while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) endorsed state Attorney General Eric Schmitt (R).

On top of that, an unknown group leaked a poll showing Greitens only narrowly leading a Democrat in a general election in an ostensive attempt to gin up concerns over his electability.

But still, Republicans in Missouri and Washington have failed to consolidate support around one other contender, keeping the primary crowded and leaving in place a path for Greitens to win the nomination with only a plurality.

“I think for Eric Greitens to be defeated, you have to have some consolidation in the race, or at least momentum as far as an alternative,” said Missouri GOP strategist James Harris, who is unaffiliated with any of the candidates. “And the thing is, we’ve been unable to have that discussion. It’s very early, but people should be concerned about Eric Greitens.”

Greitens is running in a packed field that includes Hartzler, Schmitt, Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) and more. Those candidates, Republicans say, boast sufficiently conservative pedigrees to please Republican voters while not alienating moderates over character concerns — though they’ve all failed to regularly leapfrog Greitens in the polls and are mired in infighting.

First elected to the governorship in 2016, Greitens ultimately resigned in disgrace in 2018 over claims he sexually assaulted and blackmailed his hairdresser. He insisted that their interactions were consensual, but a state legislative investigation deemed the allegations of abuse credible.

Still, Greitens consistently appears at or near the top of most primary polling, with surveys showing him with a stubborn floor of support of between 20 to 30 percent — which could well be enough if the field stays divided.

“I think Greitens has a hard floor of about 20 percent,” said one longtime Missouri GOP strategist with no ties to any candidate. “The only way he can get through a primary is if the field is all shooting at each other and basically trying to become the Greitens alternative.”

That dynamic has Republicans scrambling to thwart a Greitens nomination amid fears his small but sturdy base couldn’t translate into victory in November.

“I see Republicans both inside and outside of Missouri forced to make a decision on this,” said Gregg Keller, a veteran Missouri Republican operative advising a pro-Schmitt outside group. “The time is now to take the steps necessary to ensure that Eric Greitens is not our nominee and doesn’t just hand the seat to Democrats.”

In a sign that process may be starting, Hawley and Cruz used their massive platforms this week to buoy Hartzler and Schmitt. One poll conducted by OnMessage, Hawley’s consulting firm, found that his endorsement could be particularly influential, with 54 percent of GOP voters saying his imprimatur would make them more likely to back a candidate.

It was also reported that former President Trump in December asked Long to drop out of the race and instead run for reelection after disappointing polling and fundraising.

An unspecified outside group also sent a poll to Politico showing Greitens with a slim lead over Democratic candidate Lucas Kunce, a leak apparently intended to supercharge Republican concerns about keeping the seat.

“Greitens puts the seat at risk. I think both President Trump and Josh Hawley realize that, and that’s why you’ve seen Trump make the move to have Billy drop out and Sen. Hawley endorse a candidate,” the longtime Missouri operative said.

The search for an alternative has led the candidates to pitch themselves as the best situated to take the anti-Greitens mantle.

Hartzler’s campaign said in a statement that she is “the only authentic, lifelong conservative in this race for U.S. Senate,” noting Hawley’s endorsement. Charli Huddleston, a Schmitt campaign spokesperson, touted that Schmitt has “won statewide twice and Senator Cruz’s endorsement reaffirms and reinforces his support among America First conservatives.”

However, it’s unclear how extensively Washington power players will get involved. The National Republican Senatorial Committee confirmed it plans on remaining neutral in the primary, and Senate Leadership Fund, a powerful outside group aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has stayed away.

What’s more is the fact that several of the candidates are current officeholders, and backing one risks drawing the ire of other powerful politicos.

“You see donors and you see the political class not want to go against the sitting attorney general. The same thing is absolutely true for Congresswoman Hartzler and Congressman Long. They are in office, and donors, friends, even grassroots supporters are loath to potentially make an enemy or make someone upset who’s currently in office,” Keller said.

In a sign that the nascent efforts are falling flat, Long, instead of heading for the exit, waged a dayslong tirade accusing Hawley of misleading him over whether he would endorse anyone.

Greitens, meanwhile, is using the concerns to boost his own bona fides.

“The false narratives peddled by DC swamp creatures prove that Governor Greitens is the only candidate for U.S. Senate from Missouri who can shake up the status quo and truly represent America First,” said Dylan Johnson, Greitens’s campaign manager.

One thing that could shake up the primary is an endorsement from Trump. But outside his conversations with Long, it’s unclear how involved he plans to be.

Barring outside intervention shaking up the race, operatives in Missouri are calling for self-reflection by some candidates ahead of the March 29 filing deadline.

“I think there’s three or four candidates who really need to assess, should they file? Can they win the primary? Are they potentially just helping Eric Greitens by continuing?” Harris said.

“The ideal situation would be at least three of the candidates would not file, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Absent a consolidation, Greitens could find a path to the nomination similar to the one he used to win the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2016. Greitens won that race with under 35 percent of the vote in a field of three other candidates who slugged it out with each other.

But this time, Greitens is running with significantly more personal baggage in a race with larger national implications — and while the environment is anticipated to be so good for Republicans this year that he could still win in a general election, some in the GOP are already hesitating on if they could back him.

“I would worry about that, absolutely,” former state Rep. Casey Guernsey said when asked if Greitens could put the seat at risk. “I myself, as a Republican who has never in my life voted for a Democrat, I don’t know what in the heck I would do if Eric Greitens was the nominee. I cannot get to a place in my mind where I want to support him.” 

Tags Billy Long Donald Trump Eric Greitens Josh Hawley Missouri Missouri Senate race 2022 Mitch McConnell Ted Cruz Vicky Hartzler

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