GOP split on alternative to Greitens in Missouri Senate race

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Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens gestures while speaking to reporters in Jefferson City on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, after he filed to run in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Greitens resigned in 2018 a year-and-a-half into his first term as governor, but is staging a political comeback as he seeks the seat being vacated by the retirement of incumbent Republican Sen. Roy Blunt. (AP Photo/David A. Lieb)

ST. LOUIS – For all their angst about the possibility of former Gov. Eric Greitens winning the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Missouri, GOP leaders haven't coalesced behind an alternative.

Greitens resigned in 2018 while facing multiple investigations, including one into whether he blackmailed a woman during an extramarital affair. Yet the former Navy SEAL officer maintains a base of GOP support, has solid fundraising numbers and remains a threat to win in a multi-candidate primary.

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That worries GOP leaders, who fear Greitens would be a weak candidate in the November general election and lose to the Democratic nominee, costing Republicans a seemingly safe seat in a red state and potentially a chance at control in a narrowly divided Senate. Their anxiety comes amid a series of recent GOP missteps that includes recruiting stumbles, weak fundraising and infighting that is threatening what had been considered a smooth path to the Senate majority.

Nevertheless, Republicans are split on their choice to replace GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, who is retiring after two terms. One potential 2024 presidential contender, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, has endorsed U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler. Another possible White House hopeful, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, has backed Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

Others haven't made an endorsement at all, including Blunt, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Gov. Mike Parson. Most importantly, neither has former President Donald Trump, who won the state over Democrat Joe Biden by 15 percentage points in 2020.

Missouri Republican Party Chair Nick Myers said the party will not endorse a candidate for the Aug. 2 primary. GOP strategist James Harris doesn't think the party needs to.

“We have credible, conservative alternatives to disgraced candidate Eric Greitens, and I expect the Party trusts that voters will choose one of these other candidates,” Harris said in an email.

Greitens, speaking to reporters last month in Jefferson City after filing for the primary, said he doesn't need the support of “RINOs” — Republicans In Name Only — to win the nomination.

“The people of Missouri are with us, and that’s what they’re going to see on primary day, and that’s what they’re going to see in November at the election," he said.

McConnell has suggested he could get involved in state primaries if an “unelectable” general election candidate becomes poised to win.

“People are thinking there’s no way we could screw this up. Well, it’s always possible,” McConnell told reporters recently. “Part of my job is to try to prevent us from screwing this up by nominating people for the Senate who can win the primary but can’t win the general.”

Republicans are still haunted by the Senate race in Missouri a decade ago, when Democrat Claire McCaskill coasted to reelection in the Republican-leaning state after her conservative opponent, Todd Akin, said that women’s bodies have a way of avoiding pregnancies in cases of “legitimate rape."

The Democratic field this time features candidates with little statewide name recognition, though one of them, Yale-educated Marine veteran Lucas Kunce, has raised more money than anyone else — Democrat or Republican. Kunce is running as a populist.

The one endorsement that would carry the most weight in Missouri isn't a certainty, either, though the GOP Senate hopefuls are pushing hard for Trump's backing. U.S. Rep. Billy Long and Schmitt attended fundraisers at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida, and Hartzler and lawyer Mark McCloskey have repeatedly praised the former president.

But no one is more all in on Trump than Greitens. He has the support of Trump associates Michael Flynn and Rudy Giuliani. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Trump campaign adviser and the fiancée of Donald Trump Jr., is the national chair of Greitens’ campaign, and Trump’s pollster, Tony Fabrizio, is working for Greitens.

Trump, for now, is remaining on the sidelines — and weighing getting in at all — even as Greitens eagerly courts his endorsement. The former president is also holding back in several other high-profile races, including Senate contests in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., is pushing for an independent candidate to join the race, accusing “both sides of the political spectrum” of trying to “break the country apart.”

Experts aren’t sure an independent can succeed. Harris said a right-leaning independent would be a gift to Democrats.

“The Democrats would be unified, and the Republicans would be split,” Harris said. “It’s a noble thought. But for practical purposes it would elect a Democrat.”

Greitens was facing criminal and legislative investigations on two fronts at the time of his resignation: one stemming from an extramarital affair in which he allegedly snapped a compromising photo and threatened to use it as blackmail, and one into whether he illegally provided his political fundraiser with the donor list of his veterans charity. The invasion-of-privacy case was dropped during jury selection when the judge ruled that the prosecutor would have to testify. The donor list case was dropped when Greitens agreed to resign.

Fallout from the invasion-of-privacy case has snared the prosecutor, Democratic St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, and her chief investigator, William Tisaby.

Tisaby faces trial this month on perjury and evidence tampering counts accusing him of lying during a deposition in preparation for Greitens’ trial and concealing notes from an interview with the former governor’s accuser. Gardner, meanwhile, was accused by Missouri’s chief disciplinary counsel of concealing evidence that might have helped Greitens’ case. She faces a disciplinary hearing next month.

Greitens said he was the victim of a political witch hunt. A GOP-led legislative committee that investigated found the accuser's testimony credible. A Kansas City prosecutor who was appointed to review the invasion-of-privacy case after Gardner's charges were dropped said she believed the woman's claim but didn't have enough evidence to proceed.

In February 2021, the Missouri Ethics Commission found “probable cause” that Greitens’ campaign broke the law by not reporting that it cooperated with a political action committee in 2016, and imposed a $38,000 fine. But it also found "no evidence of any wrongdoing" by Greitens individually.

Federal Election Commission reports show that through December, Greitens had raised $1.5 million — nearly $1 million less than Schmitt and $444,000 less than Hartzler. Greitens had less than $300,000 cash on hand, compared to $1.27 million for Schmitt and $1.8 million for Hartzler.

But Greitens does have support from two super PACs with deep pockets. Missouri First Action PAC has donated nearly $1.1 million, with most of that coming from Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus. As of Dec. 31, nearly all of that money remained unspent. A separate pro-Greitens super PAC called Team PAC has raised $2.5 million from Dick Uihlein, a billionaire shipping supply magnate.


Associated Press writers Brian Slodysko in Washington, Jill Colvin in New York and David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo., contributed to this report.

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