Greitens Scandal Casts Shadow Over Missouri Senate Race
Ordinarily, a GOP governor filing a restraining order against his state's Republican attorney general, who happens to be running for one of the most competitive U.S. Senate seats in the country, would be politically devastating for the candidate.
In Missouri, however, Republicans hope it will help the challenger’s campaign to defeat Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Earlier this week, state Attorney General Josh Hawley announced his office found evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing by Eric Greitens, alleging the governor stole electronic property by using the donor list from his veterans charity for his own campaign fundraising. Greitens then sought a court order to prohibit Hawley from investigating him.
And that's the least of both men's worries. The case is separate from the real blockbuster scandal involving Greitens, who was indicted in February on an invasion-of-privacy charge amid allegations he took semi-nude photos of a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to be used for blackmail. Last week, a GOP-lead Missouri House committee investigating Greitens released a report with disturbing details of the allegations against him, including violent and unwanted sexual assault.
Nearly every Republican public official in the state, including Hawley, has called on the first-term governor to resign, and on Thursday a judge decided to proceed with the felony invasion-of-privacy charge against him. But the defendant is defiant, refusing to step down and calling the case "a political witch hunt." Greitens’ trial is scheduled to start May 14, and state lawmakers are evaluating whether to move forward with impeachment, which could drag on for the next couple of months.
The ordeal threatens to cast a long shadow over Republicans running for office in Missouri, but party operatives hope Hawley can use his position as attorney general to flip the script.
"I think you have to concede that when the governor of your own party is so focused on saving his own political skin that he's attacking anyone in reach is not an ideal situation, but there are signs Josh is going to take that situation and turn it into a positive," says Missouri GOP strategist Gregg Keller. "To some extent, it's playing into Josh's hand politically, because when you're the attorney general, you can stand behind the podium with the seal of the state of Missouri and explain you're going after corruption and malfeasance."
Democrats say Hawley is acting out of political expediency, arguing he has had months to move against Greitens. They point to Hawley previously dropping an investigation into the governor’s use of a messaging app that would allow his campaign to skirt state disclosure laws (the AG argued there was no wrongdoing). "This guy campaigned as an outsider cleaning up corruption, and Jefferson City is corrupt as ever," says Chris Hayden, spokesman for the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group that has run over $1 million in on-air advertising trying to connect Hawley to the scandal.
"The evidence in this case has been publicly available since October 2016 — what excuse could Josh Hawley possibly have for failing to pursue an investigation and allowing this evidence to languish for over a year?" said McCaskill campaign spokeswoman Meira Bernstein.
The notion that the Missouri scandal could jeopardize the GOP's chances of holding its slim majority in the Senate is particularly gut-wrenching for the party, which has spent the past several years meticulously trying to avoid such self-inflicted wounds.
Indeed, Hawley is the embodiment of lessons learned the hard way by Republicans in previous elections. After GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin shot himself in the foot with controversial comments about abortion and lost a winnable 2012 race to McCaskill, Republicans underwent a self-analysis and re-education program to avoid similar mistakes. With another chance to unseat McCaskill this year in a state Donald Trump won by 19 percentage points, Republicans cleared the primary field by securing their top recruit in Hawley, a 38-year-old Yale and Stanford graduate who clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. McCaskill is considered among the most vulnerable Democrats in the country, even in a favorable year for her party. But the Greitens scandal could once again alter the odds.
"It's an unmitigated disaster," says one longtime Republican operative in the state. "Every day the governor is there is a bad day for the Josh Hawley campaign. ... Every day there's a conversation, that this thing sits out there, is another day Claire is able to work on getting Republican-leaning women in St. Louis and Jackson Counties."
"This year's Todd Akin is Governor Greitens," the operative added, arguing that women will decide who will be the next senator from Missouri.
But the specter of Akin could be a motivator, some Republicans argue. "Base Republicans are thinking, we're not going to let this race get away from us again," says Missouri GOP strategist James Harris. "It is probably a distraction for fundraising, and there are some Republicans who are probably a little demoralized or worried about what's going on. ... But have no doubt, the resources will be there for Josh."
Hawley's "political liability in the Greitens' debacle is limited by the sheer amount of money he and his affiliates are going to be able to use to define him and his opponent," says Keller. "He's going to have somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million to spend defining him, defining the race, and defining McCaskill."
But so far, the Republican candidate's war chest pales in comparison to the incumbent’s. Hawley, who is the only Senate candidate so far that Trump has fundraised for, brought in $1.5 million this past quarter, on par with or exceeding past top recruits. But McCaskill raised $3.9 last quarter, and has over $11 million on hand while her opponent only has $2 million.
And though Trump overwhelmingly won the Show Me State, and McCaskill has shown little independence from the national Democratic Party, incumbent Republican Sen. Roy Blunt won re-election in 2016 by just one point over Jason Kander. "If Republican enthusiasm is what we've seen it to be nationally, then throw in fighting between the governor and the candidate, it's a lot more difficult for them," says Hayden, who also worked for Kander's campaign.
While most elected officials have denounced Greitens, Republicans acknowledge there is still support for the former Navy SEAL among base voters who could be turned off from Hawley's action against him. "Any time you have Republicans fighting Republicans, it's just bad for politics," says former Missouri GOP Chairman John Hancock. But the impact that will have come November is unclear.
"The governor is a divisive factor for Missouri Republicans because everybody is forced to take a side,” Hancock says. “If it persists for months and months, it will have a real and negative impact on our ability to win the Senate race. But if the governor goes away — either on his own or through impeachment -- I don't think this will have much effect at all."