Greitens fans shrug off scandals threatening GOP Senate seat

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FILE - Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens gestures while speaking to reporters in Jefferson City Feb. 22, 2022. Greitens resigned as Missouri governor amid criminal charges and legislative investigations, is accused of abuse and bullying by his ex-wife and ran a widely condemned ad suggesting he was hunting members of his own party with a gun. And the Republican is still a leading contender for election to the U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/David A. Lieb File)

ST. LOUISEric Greitens resigned as Missouri governor amid criminal charges and legislative investigations, is accused by his ex-wife of abuse and bullying and has run a widely condemned ad suggesting he was hunting members of his own party with a gun. And the Republican is still a leading contender for election to the U.S. Senate.

In the final weeks before the Aug. 2 primary, Greitens remains well positioned to clinch the nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Roy Blunt, who is not seeking a third term. If anything, the onslaught of criticism has made Greitens even more popular among his followers. They say they either do not believe the allegations against him or care more about his overarching message opposing the “radical left” and embracing former President Donald Trump.

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“Every politician gets slammed for something or other,” Michael Moynihan, 74, said at a recent Greitens campaign appearance in the eastern Missouri town of Elsberry. “If you’re into politics, buddy, believe me, they’re going to come after you.”

Ron Lowrey, 71, a retired oil and gas geologist from St. Charles, likes Greitens' resilience.

“He’s a fighter and he’s pushed through that, and that impresses me a lot,” Lowrey said.

The contest is emerging as the latest test of the GOP’s apparent willingness to embrace deeply flawed candidates who, before the Trump era, may have struggled to win their party’s nomination. Some in the GOP, particularly those close to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are watching the dynamics closely, fearful that a Greitens victory could jeopardize the party's ability to regain a Senate majority.

A new candidate is banking on the belief that Republicans want an alternative. Lifelong Republican John F. Wood, 52, a former U.S. attorney in Kansas City and most recently a top investigator for the U.S. House committee investigating the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, announced his independent candidacy late last month. A super political action committee led by former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., is pledging to spend $20 million to support him.

“I’m in this race to win it no matter who the Republican nominee is,” Wood said in a phone interview. "But I think it’ll be Eric Greitens, and Eric Greitens is a big part of the reason I decided to get into the race.”

Danforth's PAC, Missouri Stands United, is spending $3 million on TV, radio, digital and direct mail ads through July as Wood gathers signatures to get a spot on the ballot and said it will spend up to $20 million through November.

“We are too divided, and politicians are making it so," Danforth says in one TV spot. "They are intentionally dividing us. They’re appealing to the very worst in us. To our anger. They’re trying to push us into enemy camps. But we’re not enemies. We’re all one people. We’re Americans.”

Danforth takes responsibility for some of that division. He was an early supporter of Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, who was elected to the Senate in 2018. But after Hawley's Electoral College challenge to Democrat Joe Biden's 2020 presidential victory, and after the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Danforth called supporting Hawley “the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

Wood also alluded to the riot in his criticism of Greitens' latest ad, a 38-second spot showing Greitens brandishing a shotgun and declaring he’s hunting RINOs — Republicans in Name Only. Though Greitens said the spot was meant to be humorous, Facebook removed it. Twitter said it violated its rules about abusive behavior but left up the post because it was in the “public’s interest” for the tweet to be viewable. The company’s move prevented the post from being shared any further.

“If Jan. 6 taught us anything, it’s that words can inspire action," Wood said. "I think there’s a risk that Eric Greitens’ words and conduct could inspire somebody to act in a violent way, and that’s just wrong.”

Greitens, 48, is a former Navy SEAL officer and Rhodes scholar who was just a year into his first term as governor when in January 2018 he confirmed a TV report about an extramarital affair in 2015 with his St. Louis hairdresser.

The sex scandal turned into a criminal matter when the St. Louis prosecutor charged Greitens with felony invasion of privacy, accusing him of taking a nude photo of the woman and threatening to use it as blackmail if she spoke of their relationship.

Weeks later, a second charge accused Greitens of illegally using a donor list from a charity he founded to raise money for his campaign. An impeachment investigation began in the Missouri House.

The invasion of privacy charge was dropped in May 2018 amid concerns that the chief investigator and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner mishandled the investigation. Earlier this year, investigator William Tisaby pleaded guilty to misdemeanor evidence tampering. Gardner is awaiting punishment from the Missouri Supreme Court, but is not expected to lose her law license. Greitens points to both in saying he was the victim of a political hit.

A special prosecutor examined the invasion of privacy case in June 2018 and said she believed the woman, but declined to file new charges. A House investigation was still ongoing when Greitens resigned in June 2018. The campaign finance-related charge was dropped when he stepped down.

Blunt's announcement in March 2021 that he would not seek reelection set the stage for a potentially stunning political comeback for Greitens. His main opponents are Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler.

Greitens has faced a series of scandals during this race.

In March, Sheena Greitens filed an affidavit in a child custody case accusing her ex-husband of abusing her and their two sons. She cited one instance where Eric Greitens cuffed their then 3-year-old son across the face and yanked him by the hair. In another, he allegedly pushed her to the ground.

Greitens denied the allegations and accused Sheena Greitens of colluding with Republican stalwarts such as McConnell to sabotage his campaign. Sheena Greitens said she worked with no one.

If Greitens' campaign is worried about Wood's candidacy, its leaders are not letting on.

“We encourage anyone who wants to get in the race to do so, especially any prosecutors from the sham January 6th Committee,” Greitens' campaign manager, Dylan Johnson, said in a text. “Missouri is Trump Red and only an America First candidate like Governor Greitens will be the next U.S. Senator.”

Trump has yet to endorse in the race, but recently ruled out the potential of backing Hartzler.

Trump, of course, has survived questions about his own past, winning election in 2016 just weeks after a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape emerged of him bragging about grabbing women by the genitals. He carried Missouri by 19 percentage points in 2016 and by 15 percentage points in 2020.

Nonmajor party candidates do not have a history of success in Missouri, which concerns Joshua Dull, 22, a real estate consultant who serves on the St. Charles County Republican Central Committee. Dull supports Schmitt and said he was “disgusted” by Greitens’ RINO-hunting ad — but he will vote for Greitens if he wins the nomination.

“Independent candidates are great in theory, but in high-stakes elections like this one they can just create that party division that leads to Republican defeat,” Dull said.

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