There’s a bit of a “who saw that
coming?” feel to the latest big developments in the Missouri Senate race.
The answer is simple: Anyone who’s been paying attention.
To recap: Former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, who left his post in 2018 amid accusations of sexual misconduct and campaign finance violations, is the leading Republican candidate in that party’s primary to succeed retiring Senator Roy Blunt. On Monday, new court filings revealed that Greitens’s now ex-wife, Sheena Chestnut Greitens, accused the governor of physically abusing her and one of their children.
“Prior to our divorce, during an argument in late April 2018, Eric knocked me down and confiscated my cell phone, wallet, and keys so that I was unable to call for help or extricate myself and our children from our home,” Chestnut Greitens wrote in the affidavit. “I became afraid for my safety and that of our children at our home.” She went on to describe how Greitens’s “behavior included physical violence toward our children, such as cuffing our then-3-year-old son across the face at the dinner table in front of me and yanking him around by his hair.”
The latest accusations are a consistent addition to the ongoing Greitens narrative. In 2018, the details of his sexual misconduct were graphic and violent. The unnamed Greitens accuser said he forced her into a “bear hug,” stopped her from leaving his basement, and made him give her oral sex while she was “uncontrollably” crying. At the time, on top of the significance of this being a sitting governor, and one craving higher office, regardless of Donald Trump’s intentions—the revelations pulverized Greitens’s carefully crafted life story. He is a former Navy SEAL and Duke University–educated Rhodes Scholar who has been written about glowingly by Joe Klein. As with fellow Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, you could practically smell the ambition oozing out of Greitens.
When Greitens ran for governor, he positioned himself as an outsider who would be at the front lines fighting both Democrats and career politicians. That’s a pretty common approach these days for a candidate running in either party. But here Greitens very much kept the promises he made. He did some right-wing things—he lowered the minimum wage and overturned laws that protected discrimination by employers against women who use birth control. He also feuded with and berated lawmakers in his own party during legislative fights. That last habit did him no favors when the initial scandal dropped and Missouri Republicans began calling for his ouster from office.
As pressure mounted for Greitens to resign, the governor’s then-wife stood by him and maintained that his infidelity and the accusations around him were a private matter. Then, just before Greitens left office, one of his wife’s college friends, Deborah Friedell, wrote an essay in The London Review of Books, of all places, about Greitens’s rise and impending fall. Friedell described how hints of the real Greitens were clear early on. She wrote that “some friends had said that Eric had made them feel uncomfortable” and that Greitens’s ruthless ambition and disregard for rules and etiquette were evident for years.
Friedell’s essay framed Chestnut Greitens as overly deferential to her husband’s ambition—to the point of limiting her job search to Missouri (Chestnut Greitens’s education includes Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford). The piece provided a rare glimpse into a high-profile political couple’s life and union over the years, unveiled in the unlikely pages of a left-intellectual British publication. Shortly after the essay’s publication, Chestnut Greitens chided Friedell online for the essay, calling it “frankly bizarre” and saying people should not “equate my husband’s political views with my own.”
Given all that, it would have been reasonable to expect that Greitens was finished. But ambitious people never really are. So earlier this year, he opted to run for Senate and put together a team that included Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, as his national chair. Other Trumpian figures like Rudy Giuliani and former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik have fundraised for him. And Greitens’s pollster, this time around, is Tony Fabrizio, a longtime GOP pollster who worked for Trump’s campaigns.
Trump, though, has refrained from endorsing in the primary so far—possibly a sign the former president is unsure how Greitens would fare in a general election fight (Trump is usually extremely careful about picking winners, to ensure his won-lost record will look good). Greitens hasn’t given up on Trump’s support and has cast himself as a MAGA warrior who would buck Mitch McConnell if elected to the Senate. He’s said that Trump showed the Republican Party that “the only way to meaningfully advance conservative policy is through strong, uncompromising leadership.”
Most public polling of the primary has shown Greitens as the front-runner in a divided, six-person primary field, at least until these new revelations. Republicans in Missouri and in Washington, D.C., were already wringing their hands about Greitens before these most recent allegations. Hawley, one of the senators who resisted certifying Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021, tweeted Monday that the latest allegations about Greitens were a bridge too far for him.
Now Republicans are even more apprehensive about what would happen if Greitens won the nomination. In the past few election cycles, Democrats have capitalized on major screwups by Republicans—Claire McCaskill enjoyed multiple such openings over her two terms in the Senate. Mitch McConnell himself signaled that Republicans should keep that in mind moving forward on Greitens. “I think all of the developments of the last 24 hours are things the people of Missouri are going to take into account,” McConnell said Tuesday. “Both in the primary, and I would assume, would take into account in the general.”
Privately, Republicans fret that a Greitens general election nomination could actually put the Senate seat in play. “A bad Republican can still lose statewide here,” a veteran Missouri Republican strategist told me.
That may be, but the fact is that the last Democrat to win Missouri in a presidential race was Bill Clinton in 1996. Barack Obama came razor-close to winning the state in 2008, losing by less than two-tenths of a percentage point. For that fleeting moment, Democrats had high hopes that Missouri was perhaps following states like Colorado and New Mexico and transitioning from red to blue, or at least to purple. But Mitt Romney beat Obama by almost 10 points in 2012, and Donald Trump thumped Hillary Clinton there by nearly 20 points and then topped Joe Biden by 15.
Similarly, Democrats haven’t held both Senate seats in the state since 1976. Even undeniable political talents like former Secretary of State Jason Kander have had a tough time winning in Missouri. In 2016, Kander’s race seemed like a second-tier prospect for Democrats. But a viral ad and Kander’s general charisma elevated the race into the top tier. For a time, Senator Blunt’s team thought they were actually going to lose, but in the final weeks they started to feel the Trump wave and polling started to tick away from Democrats. In 2012, McCaskill faced a tough reelection fight, but she lucked out with Todd Akin in the general election, a candidate that to this day Republicans lament as one of their worst statewide nominees ever. He made an infamous “legitimate rape” comment that sank his campaign.
Democrats I talked to argued that they think they have a chance in 2022. That’s only if Greitens were to get the nomination, though. It’s much harder for Democrats if Greitens isn’t the nominee.
“I see that as the only way we have a chance,” Stephen Webber, the former chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, told me on Tuesday. “Donald Trump had a lot of these problems and won the state by huge numbers. So I’m not saying if [Greitens] is the nominee he can’t win, but his actions are shockingly reprehensible—the sexual assault, the child abuse, the domestic violence. There are a lot of people who will draw a line and say, ‘I’m a Republican, but I’m not going to support that.’ Are there enough of them? I don’t know.”
Polling is virtually nonexistent for the Democratic primary, but the two nominal front-runners are State Senator Scott Sifton and Lucas Kunce, the former national security director for the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit that advocates for aggressive antitrust laws, and a Marine. But it’s a nine-person primary that hasn’t gotten much attention, so any kind of upset is possible.
The dust is still settling around these latest allegations. “Until yesterday, I would say the odds of [Greitens] winning were like 60–70 percent,” a Democratic consultant advising one of the campaigns said to me. “We have to see what happens from yesterday. If Trump-world decides to abandon ship, then that’s it [for Greitens].”
The consequences for Greitens are still playing out. Sheena Chestnut Greitens visited Washington, D.C., last week, which led to criticism from her former husband’s campaign that she came to the capital to scheme about how to scuttle Greitens’s campaign. “My only interest is what’s best for my two children, and for the last four years, I have gone to great lengths to keep these family matters private to protect them,” Chestnut Greitens said in a statement she posted on Twitter. “I am not interested in litigating this matter anywhere other than the courtroom. At the appropriate time in the legal process, I will provide whatever evidence and documentation the court requests, including testimony under oath.”
None of this should surprise the broader public. Greitens, time and again, has shown a level of ambition that eclipses even the most power-hungry lawmaker sitting in the Senate right now. Throughout his career, he’s tried to hide his flaws and shortcomings, and when he couldn’t do that, he’s asked people to look past them. This time around, the question is whether voters are paying close enough attention. If they are, it’s possible Democrats could pick up a much-needed Senate seat in a very tough midterm election. It’s also possible that Missouri voters could disregard everything Greitens has done and choose to send him to the Senate, where Greitens will definitely not mellow out or regret his past actions.