“Heaven forbid Eric Greitens ever did get into the United States Senate,” said Gregg Keller, a Missouri political strategist who briefly served as an adviser to GOP Sen. Josh Hawley’s 2018 campaign.
Pointing to Greitens’ baggage — he resigned the governorship in 2018, midway through his first term, following allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman — many Missouri Republicans view him as an opportunist who has shamelessly recast himself as a MAGA warrior to revive his political career.
Former Greitens aides and donors said in interviews that Greitens was actually reluctant to embrace former President Donald Trump prior to the 2016 election, and even suggested privately he should disavow the Republican presidential nominee after a video surfaced that October of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. Greitens’ critics often note that he was a prospective Democratic congressional candidate before changing parties in 2015 and then running for governor as a Republican.
Greitens isn’t alone in his pursuit of Trump’s endorsement — the Republican Senate primary field is stocked with Trump supporters, several of whom have made pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago in recent months. But Greitens has surpassed them all in his attempts to curry favor with the former president. While his primary rivals have also embraced Trump’s disproven claims of a stolen election, Greitens is the only one who has repeatedly campaigned in Arizona, where he promoted the Republican-led “audit” of ballots in an attempt to decertify President Joe Biden’s victory in the state.
Greitens has also brought Trump World luminaries like Rudy Giuliani and former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to campaign for him in Missouri. He signed on numerous Trump associates to assist his bid, among them his national campaign chair Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., and Tony Fabrizio, a Trump pollster.
Former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon regularly invites Greitens to appear on his “War Room” podcast.
Looming awkwardly over the primary is Hawley, the state’s junior senator, whose relationship with Greitens has been strained in recent years. Hawley, then the state attorney general, investigated Greitens in 2018 over Greitens’ use of a charity’s donor list to solicit campaign funds, turning the findings over to a St. Louis prosecutor. Greitens was subsequently charged with computer tampering, though the charge was dropped as part of a deal with prosecutors to resign from office.
Earlier that year, Greitens had also been indicted on a charge of invasion of privacy after facing allegations that he took an unauthorized nude photo of his hairstylist while sexually assaulting her in his basement in 2015. Greitens admitted to engaging in an extramarital affair with the woman, but insisted the encounters were consensual. The charge was dropped for lack of evidence, though Missouri legislators convened a special committee and found the woman making the allegations to be credible, according to their report.
Greitens at the time blasted Hawley for being “better at press conferences than the law.”
While both Republicans have raised their national profiles championing Trump’s election fraud conspiracies, Hawley is the one who appears to be in closer touch with the former president.
Hawley and Trump “remain in contact about who to support in the primary,” said Kyle Plotkin, Hawley’s former chief of staff who continues to serve as a political adviser. Trump and Hawley discussed the Missouri race as recently as the last two weeks.
“Josh is going to do what Josh is going to do,” Plotkin said to the question of whether Hawley will intervene in the primary, declining to elaborate on any details of the senator’s discussions with Trump.
Hawley has so far declined to publicly take a stance on the primary in his home state, despite getting involved in other competitive Senate contests nationwide.
He has made endorsements in three competitive Republican elections, throwing his support behind Sean Parnell and Herschel Walker, the respective Trump picks in Pennsylvania and Georgia Senate primaries. Hawley has also endorsed J.D. Vance in Ohio.
Greitens is keenly aware of Hawley’s growing stature within party circles — after announcing his Senate run on Fox News March 22, one of Greitens’ first calls that evening was to Hawley. It went to voicemail.
Hawley’s campaign consulting firm, OnMessage Inc., is working for Rep. Vicky Hartzler in the race. On Wednesday, she became the first candidate in the five-way Republican primary to purchase a television ad: a 30-second spot that alluded to Grietens’ sexual misconduct.
“I follow the rules,” Hartzler says in the ad, smirking. “I stay out of trouble. And when I need to see a hairdresser, I make an appointment.”
Her campaign is testing whether fully aligning with the MAGA message is crucial to succeeding in the race. In her first ad, which is airing on Fox News, Hartzler never mentions Trump.
Details from the woman’s graphic 2018 testimony to Missouri legislators about her relationship with Greitens will likely appear in additional television ads as the Aug. 2 primary approaches, though it’s unclear how much of an effect it will have on the former governor.
Other candidates campaigning for the seat include current Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Rep. Billy Long and Mark McCloskey, a lawyer who drew national attention last year after he and his wife were photographed pointing guns at anti-police protesters outside their St. Louis home.
Rep. Jason Smith, a Trump ally, is still considering getting in the race.
Multiple polls released so far in the primary show Greitens leading with roughly 35 percent support.
Retiring GOP Sen. Roy Blunt has not publicly spoken out for or against anyone in the primary.
Austin Chambers, who served as Greitens’ campaign manager in his race for governor and as an adviser afterward, confirmed he will not be helping Greitens in his bid for Senate. He is among a number of one-time Greitens staffers, donors and allies who have cut ties with the former governor, forcing Greitens to look out of state for financial and strategic support.
Still, he’s likely to have the resources necessary to remain competitive: Richard Uihlein, a billionaire conservative donor and businessman, has pledged $2.5 million to a pro-Greitens super PAC. That support that will serve as an important boost to his campaign as Schmitt and Hartzler so far are out-raising him and spending less. Uihlein, who donated to Hawley’s campaigns for attorney general and Senate, has also supported other controversial Senate campaigns, including Roy Moore’s unsuccessful 2017 run in Alabama.
Officials with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund haven’t yet made a decision about whether the PAC will get involved in the primary.
Greitens’ campaign declined to comment for the story.
Despite party fears that Greitens could end up like another Missouri Republican Senate nominee, Todd Akin — who lost in 2012 after making controversial remarks about what he called “legitimate rape” — the eventual Republican nominee will run in a state that’s become even redder than a decade ago. Trump won the state by 15 percentage points last year, and Hawley in 2018 defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill by nearly 6 points.
For some Republicans, even that’s not enough to erase the unease surrounding the primary.
“To call it a clown show is an underestimation of the chaos, the pandering, the disingenuousness of the candidates,” said one longtime Missouri GOP activist.
“You cannot overestimate how bizarre this primary is shaping up to be. In that world, who says McCloskey can’t win?”