Eric Greitens’ hopes for a U.S. Senate seat hinge on how Missouri voters see his past

He resigned the governor’s office in 2018 to avoid impeachment and settle a felony charge. He’s being inundated with attack ads highlighting allegations of child abuse. Yet Eric Greitens is still considered among the frontrunners in the Aug. 2 GOP Senate primary

By: - July 12, 2022 5:55 am

Eric Greitens addresses the media after filing to run in the Missouri Senate primary on Feb. 22, 2022, at the James C Kirkpatrick State Information Center in Jefferson City (Madeline Carter/Missouri Independent).

To hear Eric Greitens tell it, his political ascent was sabotaged by a vast conspiracy.

The woman who accused him under oath of violent sexual misconduct is part of it. So is his ex-wife, who filed an affidavit this year alleging he physically abused her and his children

The more than 100 Republican state lawmakers who in 2018 were poised to remove him from the governor’s office are in on the plot, as are the people who helped Greitens start a veteran’s charity he was later accused of stealing from

Navy officials who tried to prevent him from returning to service, former campaign aides who distanced themselves from him and Republicans who worry he’ll cost the party a Senate seat are all grist for the mill of Greitens’ political revival. 

“Because I fought for you,” he said in a recent video for his U.S. Senate campaign, “they came after me.” 

And if public polls are to be believed, his strategy has worked. 

This is the first in a series of profiles of the leading candidates for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat. See the rest of the series here.

Four years after being forced from office and set adrift into political exile, Greitens is on the cusp of completing his comeback. Since joining the race for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt last year, Greitens has sat at or near the top of every poll of the crowded GOP primary

He’s done it with a campaign message short on policy and heavy on grievances that helped fuel the rise of former President Donald Trump — all while casting both as victims of betrayal by RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). 

“After everything that they’ve done,” he told a crowd in Hannibal earlier this year. “Everything they’ve put me through. Everything they put President Trump through with the Russia collusion hoax and Hillary Clinton spying on the campaign and Jan. 6 and their drive-by impeachments, people have figured out their game. And everybody in Missouri is standing up and saying that we’re going to take our country back.”

His staunchest supporters long ago waved away accounts of his alleged transgressions, and see him coming under attack from both Republicans and Democrats as a badge of honor. 

“He was doing a great job as governor before all the crap started that forced him out,” said Jeff Bouse, a Greitens supporter from Cuba, Missouri.I believe he can do great things for Missouri.”

Bouse likes that “everyone on the left is against (Greitens),” he said. “I’m so sick of those idiots playing dirty pool to get rid of anyone who won’t go along with them.”

But the number one reason Bouse supports the former governor? 

“He supports Donald Trump,” he said. “Mr. Trump will need Eric by his side helping him finish draining the swamp.”

Even the latest explosive allegations by former First Lady Sheena Greitens — that he physically abused her and his children and became so unstable in the months leading up to his resignation in 2018 that his access to firearms had to be limited — have seemingly failed to dent his popularity.

“People are just tired of listening to accounts of he said, she said,” Sid Conklin, Randolph County coroner and a Republican candidate for presiding county commissioner, said of the former First Lady’s allegations. 

On the litany of scandals that led to Greitens’ resignation, Conklin said: “There’s a lot of people willing to give him the second chance.”

Perhaps most important to his success, Greitens has managed to capitalize on a splintered GOP field that has thus far prevented the party from rallying around an alternative.

“It’s a large primary field, so the nominee will probably only need 28% of the vote,” said James Harris, a veteran GOP consultant who is not working for any of the Senate candidates. “And the Republican base is angrier today than it was in 2016, when he first ran. It’s kind of the perfect environment and race for a candidate like Eric Greitens to win.”

The rise

Former Gov. Eric Greitens waits to be introduced on April 16, 2021, at the Macon County Lincoln Days dinner (Andrew Murphy photo).

Greitens stormed onto the Missouri political scene in 2016, running for governor despite having never sought public office before. His campaign message was simple: Missouri’s government was teeming with “corrupt career politicians,” and the only one who could fix it was an outsider with no loyalties to a broken system.

Greitens grew up in St. Louis County. His mother was a special education teacher and his father worked at the Department of Agriculture. He studied ethics, philosophy and public policy at Duke University in North Carolina. 

Selected as a Rhodes scholar, he furthered his education at the University of Oxford in England, where he earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. His doctoral thesis investigated how international humanitarian organizations can best serve war-affected children. Throughout his time in school, Greitens did humanitarian work around the globe.

After leaving Oxford, he joined the military, becoming a Navy SEAL in 2001 and eventually serving in Southeast Asia, Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. 

When he came home from Iraq, Greitens founded The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization aimed at empowering wounded and disabled veterans to begin new lives as leaders here at home. He wrote several books and became a regular fixture on the lecture circuit and in the media. 

In 2013, Time Magazine named him on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2014 Fortune Magazine listed him as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders

When he decided to explore running for governor in 2015, he announced on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

But before he was a Republican firebrand running for Missouri governor, he was a progressive Democrat, said Stephen Webber, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party who befriended Greitens when both returned from Iraq in 2007.

Webber said he and Greitens bonded after realizing they had both been present at the same suicide truck bomb attack in Fallujah months earlier. 

“I saw that whole attack,” Webber said. “I was further away from it than he was, but I actually got kind of knocked back by the blast in the car bomb.”

“We had this really obvious connection of, ‘Oh, my God, I was there, too,’” Webber said.

The two remained close for years, Webber said, with Grietens offering him a job at the veterans charity he was starting and traveling back to Missouri to help kick off Webber’s first campaign for public office in 2008. 

“He was a strong Obama supporter,” Webber said. “He was really excited about the direction Obama was taking the party. He was very progressive back then.”

Greitens attended the Democratic National Convention in 2008 with former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, and two years later flirted with running for U.S. Congress as a Democrat

But by 2016, Missouri was a ruby red state politically and Greitens was a Republican. He declared that though he was raised as a Democrat, as he got older “I no longer believed in their ideas.”

Webber says there is another explanation. 

“He does whatever he thinks the people around him want him to do,” Webber said. “When he was a liberal, he did these liberal things because he wanted liberal people to like him. And now that he’s gone over and decided to be a Trump guy, he does Trump things so that Trump people like him.

“But he has no core values of his own.”

Regardless of his past as a Democrat, Greitens’ outsider 2016 campaign fit perfectly with the political mood in Missouri that year. And much like today, he benefited from a crowded GOP primary that allowed him to win the nomination with only 34% of the vote. 

Trump won Missouri by 19-percentage-points that November, providing coattails for Greitens to ride into the governor’s office by five points.

Whispers that the statehouse was merely a stepping stone to the White House began quickly.

The fall

Former Gov. Eric Greitens delivers the annual State of the State address to the Missouri House in January 2018. The same night as the speech, allegations of violent sexual misconduct during a 2015 affair were first reported by KMOV-TV (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

His first year in office saw Greitens sign a right-to-work law (that was eventually overturned by voters) and convene a special legislative session to enact stricter regulations on abortion. He also engineered the ouster of the state’s education commissioner and the demise of a tax credit for low-income housing

But by January 2018, a trio of allegations began his downfall. 

The first came from a woman with whom he had an affair in 2015, who testified under oath that Greitens led her to his basement, taped her hands to pull-up rings, blindfolded her, spit water into her mouth, ripped open her shirt, pulled down her pants and took a photo without her consent.

The felony charge that stemmed from that allegation was eventually dropped by Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who cited statutes of limitation that had or were about to pass and potentially missing evidence.

Greitens was also accused of stealing a donor list from the veteran’s charity he founded in order to boost his political career — a felony charge that was dropped as part of a plea deal that stipulated prosecutors had “sufficient evidence” to bring his case to trial.

And he faced allegations that he was using his political nonprofit, A New Missouri Inc., to illegally circumvent the state’s campaign disclosure laws. A day before he announced his resignation, a Cole County judge ordered his nonprofit to abide by a subpoena and turn over documents to the legislative committee considering impeachment. 

“It looks like Eric Greitens came to power protecting his secret donors and now he’s leaving power protecting his secret donors,” former Republican state Sen. Rob Schaaf said at the time of Greitens’ resignation. 

An ethics complaint resulted in one of the largest fines in the history of the Missouri Ethics Commission — a $178,000 hit to Greitens’ campaign committee for violating state law, though the commission concluded there was no evidence Greitens was involved in the wrongdoing.

Greitens hoped to return to the military following his resignation, but neither the Navy nor the Navy SEALs wanted him back. It was only after intervention from the vice president’s office that he was allowed to return as a reservist. 

He resigned his commission two months into his Senate campaign. 

RINOs 

Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens in a video for his U.S. Senate campaign featuring a group of men in tactical gear hunting “RINOs,” or Republicans in name only (screenshot).

The Eric Greitens running for Senate in 2022 isn’t all that different from the one who rode a wave of voter discontent into the governor’s office in 2016. 

He’s still preaching the gospel that corrupt politicians are screwing over Missourians, and he’s still convinced he’s the only one equipped to change that. He swapped out “ISIS hunting permits” as a fundraising ploy for “RINO hunting permits,” and still adores footage of himself with firearms. 

But the scandals that dominated his public life for the last four years — specifically the repeated claims of physical and sexual violence — have given his 2022 campaign a much darker hue. 

“I’d rather fight the Taliban. They were trying to kill me, but at least they were honest about it,” Greitens told a supporter outside an event in Ridgedale in April. “Hit you with a suicide truck bomb. Shoot at you with RPGs. Unfortunately, it’s the RINOs, because of their corruption and their cowardice, that they’re always stabbing people in the back.”

It’s those RINOs, according to Greitens, that are the root cause of the country’s problems. 

The left “has their crazy flag flying,” Greitens told a group of supporters in Hannibal, but the real problem “is the RINOs who keep stabbing real patriots in the back and keep stabbing President Trump.”

All this rhetoric culminated last month with the controversial “RINO hunting” video depicting Greitens carrying a shotgun alongside soldiers in tactical gear and military-style weapons, battering down the door of a home looking for RINOs.

The video’s violent imagery earned a rebuke from his GOP primary rivals, which Greitens waved off as “faux outrage” from “snowflakes.”

What he promises to do if elected constitutes a laundry list of Trump priorities, such as funding a wall on the Mexican border, auditing the 2020 presidential election and opposing Mitch McConnell as majority leader of the U.S. Senate. 

Almost everyone agrees, a Trump endorsement in the Missouri GOP primary would seal the deal for whoever gets it. And few have sought it more aggressively than Greitens.

In a recent television interview, Trump sent mixed messages about how he feels about Greitens, calling him the candidate Democrats hope wins the primary but also referring to him as “smart” and “tough.” 

Greitens is “a little controversial,” Trump said, “but I’ve endorsed controversial people before. So we’ll see what happens.”

With or without the former president’s formal seal of approval, Greitens has spent the last year and a half on the campaign trail proclaiming himself the only true “America First” candidate. 

“I’m happy to tell you,” he told a crowd in Camdenton, “I am here stronger, wiser, more joyous, more courageous than I’ve ever been in my life. And I recognize the nature of the enemy that we face.”

The Independent’s Rudi Keller contributed to this story. 

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Jason Hancock
Jason Hancock

Jason Hancock has been writing about Missouri since 2011, most recently as lead political reporter for The Kansas City Star. He has spent nearly two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, and has a track record of exposing government wrongdoing and holding elected officials accountable.

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