Eric Greitens casts a long shadow over Missouri's unpredictable Republican Senate primary
Six major candidates are squaring off Aug. 2 in the Missouri GOP Senate primary, but since they're generally similar on high-profile issues, much of the run-up revolves around whether Greitens can overcome his many scandals or whether his opponents can appeal enough to an increasingly Republican state.
Inside a restaurant in Jefferson County, dozens of people crammed into a back room to hear U.S. Senate hopeful Eric Greitens speak.
Before launching into his stump speech that excoriated President Joe Biden’s domestic and foreign policy agenda, the former governor alluded to the extreme tension between himself and other members of the Missouri Republican Party.
“And one thing that’s really important for us to recognize at this moment is that we’re going to win and we are not going to become our enemies,” Greitens said at the recent campaign stop. “We’re not going to become them.”
Few figures in recent Missouri political history have invoked more disparate passion than Greitens, who is one of five major candidates in an Aug. 2 primary to select a nominee for the election to succeed Sen. Roy Blunt. The St. Louis County native has been the subject of scorn and admiration since he entered the political scene in 2015.
And since all six major candidates are generally similar on high-profile issues important to the GOP electorate, much of the run-up to the primary revolves around whether Greitens can overcome the scandals that follow him around or whether his opponents can appeal enough to an increasingly Republican state.
“There's still a lot of angst and hurt feelings over the election of 2020,” said Austin Petersen, a Jefferson City-based radio host who is neutral in the Republican Senate primary. “I think people look at Eric Greitens sort of as a proxy for Trump. A lot of our voters will say that Eric Greitens reminds them of Donald Trump.”
So far, Trump has stayed out of endorsing anyone in the Senate race, though his decision to explicitly not endorse a major candidate, U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, could have major ramifications for how the contest shakes out.
On the comeback trail
Since entering the Missouri electoral arena, Greitens faced controversy after controversy after controversy. That includes such issues as from how he’s secured campaign contributions and startling allegations around an extramarital affair in 2015. More recently, he’s faced allegations of abuse from his ex-wife — which he’s denied and are currently playing out in a Boone County courtroom in their child custody case.
Greitens has also faced more conventional attacks from his foes, including that he was a Democrat for most of his life before running for governor as a Republican. That’s led some to accuse him of hypocrisy when he’s used his messaging against so-called Republicans in name only, or RINOs.
“What you see from our opponents, political commentators, is, you know, all of this nonsense,” Greitens said after he finished shaking hands and taking photos with supporters at the Jefferson County event. “And we've been extraordinarily successful by focusing on the people.”
Some outside observers see Greitens trying to court a specific subset of GOP primary voters. These Republicans tend to be attracted to Trump’s more populist political positions and their distaste for high-profile Republican political figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“I think what you've seen is that there is an intensity of feeling that everyone recognizes that the problem in the country is not just from the left. It's not just their craziness,” Greitens said. “But it's the consistent way that RINOs are stabbing people in the back.”
Several attendees of Greitens’ event in Jefferson County cited the attacks he’s received from other Republicans as part of his appeal. That includes St. Louis County resident Dave Day, who said people are continuing to support Greitens “because they’re tired of the establishment's garbage.”
“And I’ve been fighting against the establishment for a while,” Day said. “And Eric has been doing that for a while. And that’s why we like him.”
Others, like Lemay resident Donna Pigg, said the scandals around Greitens have no impact on her.
“He’s my hero,” Pigg said. “What happened to him as governor? That was the most evil thing they’ve ever done. It was none of their business. It was a private matter.”
On the attack
The other candidates running see things differently than Pigg.
At least five GOP candidates other than Greitens have raised and spent a significant amount of money. They include Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, U.S. Rep. Billy Long and attorney Mark McCloskey — all of whom have either provided themselves or raised enough funds to be considered viable.
But two others, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Hartzler, are widely seen as the candidates besides Greitens who have the best chance to win the primary. Hartzler and Schmitt have significantly more money in their campaign accounts as well as political action committees that have raised millions of dollars.
Schmitt and Hartzler are taking on different strategies to appeal to Republican voters.
Schmitt has emphasized his lawsuits against elements of President Joe Biden’s agenda, such as a vaccine mandate on certain businesses that was ultimately scuttled. He’s also gained attention, both positive and negative, for suing schools that implemented COVID-19 restrictions.
“Republican attorneys general are kind of the last firewall from this really radical agenda,” Schmitt said. “And our office has really taken the lead nationally. As I’ve referred to it, taking a blowtorch to that agenda. I think if you look and see who’s actually taking action, that’s certainly the strong suit for us.”
This is the first time Schmitt has run in a Republican primary against opponents since a state Senate seat contest in 2008. His detractors have brought up votes and causes he’s taken over his career, most notably a failed effort in 2011 to pass a plan that would have created a “China hub” at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
For the most part, Schmitt has stayed focused on his record as attorney general during his Senate campaign.
“A lot of people are going to talk about things,” he said. “They’re going to have some funny lines along the way. But I’m the one who’s actually taken action.”
Hartzler, who has served in Congress since 2011, is banking on a mixture of high-profile endorsements and socially conservative positions.
In addition to getting support from U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, Hartzler received key endorsements from agricultural groups such as the Missouri Farm Bureau PAC and the Missouri Corn Growers Association.
“I was there with President Trump when we secured the border and we got this economy going,” Hartzler said earlier this year. “We stood up for our values, supported Israel and had a very strong national defense. And so, those are things our country needs right now, and that’s what I’m talking about.”
Hartzler suffered a blow earlier this month when Trump declined to endorse her campaign. She said in a statement afterward that the “only endorsement that counts is the endorsement of the Missouri people who know I am one of them and have been fighting for them.”
James Harris, a Republican strategist who is not aligned with any candidate in Missouri’s Senate race, said Trump’s announcement that he won’t be endorsing Hartzler will likely significantly hurt her chances.
“I mean, it's lethal for him saying I won't support her,” Harris said.
A race in flux
In late June, Harris told the Missouri Independent that unless Trump endorsed another candidate, it would be “very, very difficult” to defeat Greitens in the primary.
But in an interview on Tuesday, Harris said polling seems to be showing a trend toward Schmitt — especially as a PAC known as Show Me Values has been hammering Greitens over his ex-wife’s allegations.
“I am very happy to say that I was wrong,” Harris said. “And now I believe Eric Greitens will lose the Republican nomination.”
Yet polling in Missouri, especially in primaries, is notoriously unreliable.
If Greitens prevails, there’s a debate whether he’ll be vulnerable in a general election.
Long, for instance, believes Greitens is so controversial that he’ll make a safe Republican seat much more competitive than it needs to be.
“I think I’m the one who can win this race in the general without a lot of big pushback from the Democrats,” Long said. “I think if we elect Eric Greitens, the party has told us we’ll have to spend $30 to $40 million trying to drag him across the finish line.”
Greitens backers like Wildwood resident Gary Wiegert say that type of contention is a rationalization from Republicans who don’t want to deal with Greitens if he ends up winning the Senate race and gets a national platform.
“I think he’s the strongest candidate to take on the Democrats," Wiegert said. “I think Eric is the one who the Democrats fear.”
One wildcard is John Wood, a former U.S. attorney who is running as an independent during the general election in November. Wood, who has the backing of former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, is expected to have millions of dollars to support his candidacy.
Also unknown is which Democratic candidate will move ahead to November. Three major candidates, Trudy Busch Valentine, Lucas Kunce and Spencer Toder, are vying for the nomination.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.