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Fractured Senate GOP primary gives controversial candidate an opening in Missouri, sparking Republican fears

<i>Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader/AP</i><br/>Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens
Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader/AP
Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens

By Alex Rogers and Manu Raju, CNN

Nearly four years ago, Eric Greitens resigned as governor of Missouri rather than face impeachment after his hairdresser alleged to a state panel that he coerced her into oral sex and threatened to blackmail her with photos of her to cover up their affair.

Now the former governor — who denied the blackmail allegations but admitted to an affair — is the apparent front-runner in the GOP primary for a US Senate race in Missouri, sparking fears among top Republicans who believe that Greitens’ personal conduct could jeopardize the party’s ability to keep a safe seat and sink their chances at taking back the Senate.

Greitens is benefiting from a crowded field of candidates, as Republicans nervously wait to see whether former President Donald Trump tries to tip the scales one way or the other in the August primary.

Top Republicans are worried of a repeat of their nightmare from a decade ago, when Democrat Claire McCaskill pulled off a seismic upset because of controversies engulfing the late Republican Todd Akin. Ten years later, Democrats are again facing a tough slog to maintain their Senate majority, and are more than happy to see the emergence of a controversial Missouri Republican Senate candidate.

“Given all the baggage that he has, if he’s the nominee, there’s definitely an opportunity for us,” Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told CNN.

In a sign of the splintering field, GOP Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas respectively endorsed two of Greitens’ opponents — Rep. Vicky Hartzler and state attorney general Eric Schmitt — just this past week. Other Republican leaders in Washington told CNN that Greitens’ candidacy posed problems.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said in an interview that “the former governor brings some baggage into the race” that “he’ll have to get by” if Greitens becomes the nominee. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman who is neutral in the race, said “some people are worried about the allegations around that resignation,” adding, “it’s an issue he has to deal with.” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said, “He’s obviously got some real tarnish.”

One senior Republican source, who asked not to be named, believes the race will “sort itself out.”

“If not, I’m sure an outside group will get involved,” the source said.

In a recent interview, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to rule out getting engaged in the race or employing his outside group, the Senate Leadership Fund, to try to derail Greitens if his candidacy picks up steam. A spokesman for SLF did not respond to a request for comment.

“Missouri is potentially challenging depending on the outcome in the primary,” McConnell said without mentioning Greitens by name. Asked if his group would try to defeat Greitens in the primary, McConnell would only say: “All I’ll say about Missouri at this point is we’re keeping our eye on it.”

Hawley, who has been careful not to criticize Greitens, said he stands by his call for Greitens to resign in 2018, when he served as state attorney general. Back then, Hawley called Greitens’ conduct “impeachable,” and that the state House investigative committee’s report contained “shocking, substantial, and corroborated evidence of wrongdoing.”

“I think it’s absolutely vital that we make sure that we get a candidate who can hold that seat,” Hawley told CNN Thursday. “And I’m concerned about that.”

Greitens courts Trump

But other Republicans say that any GOP candidate who wins the primary campaign will defeat the Democratic nominee in Missouri, where Trump won by over 15 percentage points in 2020. Both of Missouri’s senators — Hawley and Sen. Roy Blunt, whose upcoming retirement created the battle for the open seat — are Republican.

Greitens has claimed he has been exonerated since allegations of campaign and sexual misconduct led to his downfall, after criminal charges into both matters were dropped. He admitted to the affair from 2015 but has repeatedly denied allegations of violence and blackmail. Greitens’ campaign notes that a former FBI agent investigating Greitens was later indicted for six counts of perjury and one count of tampering with physical evidence. And in 2020, a Missouri ethics panel found “no evidence of any wrongdoing” by Greitens in its investigation of misconduct by his 2016 gubernatorial campaign, although the commission fined his campaign for not reporting in-kind contributions.

“The election for US Senate in Missouri will not be decided by swampy consultants and RINOs in Washington DC,” said Greitens campaign manager Dylan Johnson. “It will be decided by the people of Missouri.”

“Governor Greitens will never back down against the tyranny of the left and will always fight for America and Americans,” Johnson added. “Make no mistake, Governor Greitens will be Missouri’s next US Senator.”

Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, benefits from a large field of candidates and an election system where the primary’s winner only needs to get a plurality of the vote. Besides Schmitt and Hartzler, Greitens faces Rep. Billy Long, attorney Mark McCloskey, and state Senate President Dave Schatz.

Greitens has recruited two officials from Trump’s orbit — Kimberly Guilfoyle, the partner of Trump’s son Don Jr. and a top fundraiser for his 2020 campaign, and former communications strategist Boris Epshteyn — as advisers. Greitens visited Trump’s estate at Mar-a-Lago in Florida last week for fundraising and political meetings, according to a person familiar with the matter.

And he has passed Trump’s primary litmus test, embracing the former President’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. When Arizona Senate Republicans released a partisan report in September confirming Trump’s loss, Greitens still called for Arizona to “decertify” the results.

Greitens is also one of the few prominent Senate Republican candidates to publicly say he would not support McConnell to continue serving as GOP leader, as Trump has pushed for months.

An official for the Club for Growth, a conservative group that has not endorsed a candidate in the race, disputed that Greitens could jeopardize the Senate seat.

“Don’t be fooled by Mitch McConnell and The Establishment,” said the official. “Missouri is a deeply red state and the Republican nominee will win the general election.”

But, Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who led the Senate GOP campaign committee when Democrats won the Missouri race in 2012, had a word of warning to his party when asked about Missouri.

“It is important to nominate people who can win a general election,” Cornyn said Thursday. “That’s kind of the point.”

Other candidates have also espoused their allegiance to Trump to varying degrees. Long, who has trailed behind top-tier candidates, and Hartzler both voted in 2021 to not certify the results in Pennsylvania and Arizona, where Joe Biden won. YouTube pulled one of Long’s videos in which he falsely claimed that Democrats stole the 2020 election.

Schmitt signed onto a Texas lawsuit challenging the results of swing states Trump lost, which was rejected by the Supreme Court on the grounds that Texas lacked standing to sue, and embraced Trump’s “America First” agenda. Schmitt’s campaign spokeswoman, Charli Huddleston, noted that the state attorney general has won statewide twice and said Cruz’s endorsement “reaffirms and reinforces his support among America First conservatives.”

The candidates have also engaged in the same cultural warfare as Trump, including Hartzler, who has aired an ad railing against transgender athletes.

Schmitt has attacked Greitens for appearing once on a China propaganda network, while Greitens has attacked Schmitt for supporting stronger economic ties between Missouri and China about a decade ago. Ads by super PACs supporting both candidates say the other candidate is: “Good for China, bad for Missouri.”

Trump considers sitting out of Missouri

Yet Trump doesn’t appear ready to endorse a Senate candidate in the Missouri primary.

One person close to the former President said the main issue is that Trump despises McConnell and isn’t inclined to do anything to make his life easier — like endorsing against Greitens — even if it puts the GOP in a weak position for the general election. The former President is also wary of choosing the wrong candidate in the wake of picking Tennessee House GOP candidate Morgan Ortagus, which sparked a backlash among some of Trump’s most fervent supporters.

“All indications are that he is going to wait and that he’s just not inclined to get involved right now,” this person said.

Long told CNN that Trump two or three months ago joked about giving him an endorsement but not for the job he wanted.

“If you’ve ever been with Trump, you know he’s a jokester,” Long said. “I got a call one day from him. … And he paused, and then he said, ‘I’m going to give you a big beautiful endorsement.’ He paused again. ‘For Congress.'”

“I laughed,” Long said, noting that House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel also were on the line with Trump.

Long added that he pledged to not serve again in the House after he completed in January his dozen years in office.

“Wild horses could not pull me back to the House,” Long said.

Both Scott and Hawley also regularly brief Trump about the race — and neither are clear what he plans to do.

Scott, who told CNN that he visited Trump last Friday at Mar-a-Lago, said he has given the former President a word of advice.

“My goal is for — not just him — for Republicans to endorse people that can win the general election,” Scott said.

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Gabby Orr, Morgan Rimmer and Ali Zaslav contributed to this report.

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