Eric Greitens will never drop out of the Missouri Senate race | Opinion

Two women swore under oath he’s a dangerous abuser. Greitens is betting that won’t matter in a primary — and that there aren’t enough swing voters to impact November

April 1, 2022 9:00 am

Former Gov. Eric Greitens speaks the Macon County Lincoln Days dinner in April 2021. Greitens is fighting allegations of spousal and child abuse in a Boone County custody case. (Andrew Murphy photo).

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If you still doubt that Eric Greitens is a threat to anyone he deems an enemy, and potentially even to himself, then you may also believe O.J. Simpson spends his days searching for the real killers.   

And yet recent polling in the wake of the latest revelations – a sworn statement from his ex-wife detailing physical abuse alongside a torrent of verbal abuse and coercion – indicates that the majority of Republican primary voters a) are aware of the allegations and b) do not find them immediately disqualifying.

Several national journalists asked me if Greitens would drop out following the recent news. 

Never, I replied.

“Why not? Sean Parnell did,” one noted, referencing a Trump-endorsed Pennsylvania candidate who dropped out of that state’s U.S. Senate race after a judge stripped custody of his children in a court battle. 

Three reasons.

First of all, regardless of how outside observers may perceive the latest round of allegations, it may not move many primary voters. 

As a perceptive Republican legislator suggested to me, no amount of media coverage of the above incidents move primary voters because they are skeptical of all mainstream media pronouncements. It’s “just another Jussie Smollett-style hoax,” many are conditioned to think, with the media “targeting yet another Republican.”

An increasingly fragmented media environment allows people to create a “filter bubble,” whereby viewers and listeners filter out news from any outlet with whose views they tend to disagree.

In layman’s terms, having 3,000 channels instead of three allows us to hear only what we want to hear. And so most Greitens backers will either never hear of the most recent set of allegations, or only hear of them as filtered through Greitens’s rebuttal or the skepticism of friendly media figures like Steve Bannon or Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft.

Moreover, key Republican opinion shapers have sent mixed messages from the start. 

Instead of uniting in condemnation of Greitens — who with each new disclosure increasingly jeopardizes Republican control of the seat — many top Republicans such as Senate Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Rick Scott said that they would defer to the voters’ judgment. Even some of Greitens’ own opponents, such as Congressman Billy Long, initially said that voters weren’t interested in Greitens’ scandals anymore because “everybody’s run that thing through the mill.” As recently as this week, Gov. Mike Parson declined to echo Missouri’s two U.S. Senators’ call for Greitens to drop out.  

The second reason he will not drop out regardless of what allegations emerge is that there is a larger difference between winning and losing for him than arguably for any candidate in the country this year. 

Let me explain via contrast.

If Billy Long wins, then he spends a term in the Senate. If he loses, he likely comes home to southwest Missouri for years of leisurely fishing and celebrity auctioneering. 

If Eric Schmitt loses, he’ll still be Attorney General for as long as he wants to be. If he’d rather make more money, he could likely secure a role as general counsel of a St. Louis company, or a partnership at a St. Louis law firm.

But if Eric Greitens loses, he is a disgraced former governor whose latest circle of friends — the B- and C-list Trump acolytes like Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon — will likely discard him as quickly as Trump dropped them when their baggage became too heavy.

Greitens once made $40,000 per pop as a motivational speaker exhorting reverent audiences to model humility and virtue in their daily actions. Even if any corporate leaders able to pay decent speaking fees found him a credible messenger on such topics at this point, they would not be able to bring him in without facing a rebellion from female employees.

The same goes for major book publishers, who will no longer pay the six-figure advances that Greitens once earned for his books. 

And when he tried to return to the Navy – had you ever heard that he was once a SEAL? – as a means to politically rehabilitate himself following his resignation, he found that they didn’t want him back. He had to pull strings leveraging then-Vice President Pence to even get an unglamorous desk job.

The third reason Greitens will stay in the race is that, as appalling as the latest round of allegations is, they don’t really affect his campaign strategy at all. And to date, that strategy has worked brilliantly.

The foundation of Greitens’s strategy are two related trends — the polarization and nationalization of American politics — which together have catalyzed the decline of ticket-splitting.

Just two decades ago in 2000, there was a 45% correlation between states’ results in U.S. Senate and presidential races. By 2020, there was a 97% correlation. 

Outside of a few isolated places like West Virginia and Maine, people are no longer saying, “Well, I usually lean towards the other party, but Joe Manchin (or Susan Collins) is all right by me.”

They are now saying, “If Schumer (or McConnell) gets back in control, the whole country will go to hell.”

Accordingly, in a state that Trump won by 18 and 15 percentage points in his two races, any Republican nominee for U.S. Senate will be favored in Missouri.

This has been Greitens’s trump card all along: That his baggage was irrelevant in a primary because he could claim that it was all a creation of corrupt career politicians and lying left-wing leeches in the media. And it was irrelevant in the general because of the hyper polarization and nationalization of American politics that has rendered swing-voting nearly non-existent, ensuring that a state Trump won twice by double digits is unlikely to swing back left. 

“I begin with humility, I act with humility, I end with humility,” Greitens once wrote in his bestselling book, Resilience.

But while Sheena Greitens’s affidavit was a bombshell, the above political considerations led her ex-husband to double down on his strategy. There was never going to be an apology, an admission, or any of the humility that self-help guru Greitens once counseled.

And in fact, if his nemesis Kim Gardner, the prosecuting attorney in St. Louis, is disbarred after her April 11 disciplinary hearing, Greitens will be tripling down and going back on offense.

He is a master of conflating some facts, obfuscating others and lying about the rest to create a phony narrative. Despite the inherent dishonesty, he is an extraordinarily disciplined and effective political communicator.  

This is true on a micro level, as with this tweet in which Greitens’s campaign manager depicted a rock star-like appearance at a recent Bootheel gathering. While the event may indeed have set a record for ticket sales, that had nothing to do with Greitens, since almost no one knew he was coming. That’s because he is so afraid of interrogation that he will not announce his rare Missouri appearances in advance for fear a voter may ask a hostile question and create a viral moment.

Instead, he has spent the bulk of the campaign courting Donald Trump in Mar-a-Lago, playing tough-guy at the South Texas border and in Arizona trying to overturn the 2020 election.

On its face, the strategy seems absurd.

But when you consider some of the aforementioned media and political trends in the country, it makes sense that Greitens would get more mileage out of traveling to sites around the country to create messages that will resonate with radicalized grassroots donors nationally than risking retail campaigning among the actual voters he needs. 

With the Gardner hearing, Greitens now has a significant opportunity – one tailor-made for his deceptive communication style. Based on preliminary documents, some legal experts believe there is sufficient evidence for disbarment.

If that occurs, Greitens will claim total exoneration. That’s like Ted Bundy claiming exoneration after prosecutors dropped a parking ticket he’d received at the beach he scoured for potential victims. Just because Gardner and her investigator inexplicably lied about whether or not notes were taken during a deposition doesn’t change Greitens’s underlying conduct that landed us here.

Greitens’s strategy has kept him atop the polls for over a year. Don’t expect it to change now. Not only will he not drop out, but his rhetoric is likely to get even more spiked as he scrambles not just for his political life, but his livelihood.

Unlike most candidates, he has no Plan B: no political patron left in power, no waiting sinecure and no conceivable source of income if his comeback fails. 

Which should be a warning to his potential opponents on a debate stage: The most dangerous candidates (and people) are those with nothing to lose. 

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Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, which supports development of safe, affordable housing. Previously, he taught public policy at Dartmouth College and The New School, represented the city of St. Louis in the Senate, and wrote three books: Trading Places, on U.S. party alignment; Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, a memoir and argument for reform; and Ferguson in Black and White, an historical analysis of St. Louis inequality. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Washington University.