It was the year’s biggest gathering of Missouri Republicans, but the party’s putative frontrunner to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt was nowhere to be found.
Over the weekend, nearly everyone angling for the Senate seat flocked to the Missouri Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Days in Kansas City and a Missouri Cattlemen’s Association fundraiser at the state fairgrounds in Sedalia.
Noticeably absent was Eric Greitens, the disgraced former governor who according to public polls leads the still-growing field of GOP U.S. Senate hopefuls.
Greitens spent the weekend 1,200 miles away in Arizona, watching a so-called audit of the more than 2.1 million votes cast last year in Maricopa County.
“If they don’t have the ballots, they don’t have the victory,” Greitens has said repeatedly in interviews and on social media. “And what follows from that is that Arizona then needs to decertify their electors. That’s the direction that this is headed.”
Donald Trump lost to President Joe Biden in 2020.
But count Greitens among those clinging to baseless claims of widespread fraud and unwilling to accept the outcome. And in many ways, that’s what’s fueling his U.S. Senate campaign.
Largely shunned by his party’s establishment, which helped run him out of office in 2018, Greitens has adopted the grievances of the former president and made them his overarching campaign message.
To be sure, every candidate running or contemplating a run for Senate in Missouri is courting Trump and the voters who twice delivered him double-digit wins in the Show-Me State.
Attorney General Eric Schmitt joined unsuccessful lawsuits trying to overturn the 2020 election. Lawyer Mark McCloskey has adopted the pseudo-populist rhetoric of the Trump campaign. Rep. Vicky Hartzler’s campaign kickoff was an homage to the Trump presidency.
But since re-emerging on the Missouri political scene in early 2020, Greitens has crafted his public persona around the idea that he was the victim of a political witch hunt — and that he has been fully exonerated in the years since leaving office.
He has surrounded himself and his campaign almost exclusively with former Trump aides. And he confines media appearances mostly to pro-Trump, right-wing media, where he touts debunked election fraud conspiracies.
His continued popularity with the party’s base has GOP leaders worried he could win a primary and then lose the seat to a Democrat thanks to the litany of scandals that originally derailed his career — charges of violent sexual misconduct and blackmail; accusations that he stole from a veteran’s charity; claims of dark-money fueled corruption; and reports that the Navy refused his return to service until Vice President Mike Pence’s office intervened.
But while the other contenders touted their Trump bonafides to the party faithful in Missouri this weekend, Greitens was with the Trump bitter enders in Arizona.
For weeks, a private cybersecurity company from Florida with no experience in auditing elections has been re-counting the ballots in Arizona’s largest county at the behest of the state’s Republican senators.
Democratic and Republican critics alike — including the GOP-run county board of supervisors and the Republican who is the chief county election officer — dismiss the effort as a dangerous exploitation of grievances that fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.
The county already conducted a hand count of ballots, led by a multiparty audit board, which found no discrepancies. The board of supervisors hired independent firms to perform a forensic audit of voting equipment that found no irregularities.
But this new “audit” has become a cause célèbre among the former president’s most ardent supporters, with many making the pilgrimage to Arizona to see it first hand.
Among them is Greitens, who declared on Sunday that “patriots are getting to the bottom of what happened with this election.”
Meanwhile in Missouri, Greitens’ absence at Lincoln Days didn’t go unnoticed.
Michael Hafner, a veteran GOP political operative who briefly worked for Greitens in 2015 and is now working for Hartzler, questioned the wisdom of Greitens’ decision.
“For someone who claims he is building a grassroots army to carry himself to a U.S. Senate victory,” Hafner said, “it’s quite an interesting tactic to snub the largest GOP grassroots event of 2021.”