By Manu Raju, Alex Rogers and Ali Zaslav, CNN
The Missouri Senate Republican race officially began on Tuesday, as the candidates filed their campaigns and quickly aimed their sights on former Gov. Eric Greitens, the apparent frontrunner who resigned in 2018 amid a sex scandal and charges of campaign misconduct.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler said Greitens brought “shame and disgrace” upon her state. State Attorney General Eric Schmitt said Greitens’ resignation “left a lot of questions … unanswered.” Rep. Billy Long said if Greitens were the Missouri Senate GOP nominee, the Republican Party would have to spend tens of millions of dollars to “drag him across the finish line.” State Senate President Dave Schatz said Greitens is “unfit for office.” Attorney Mark McCloskey said Greitens’ “basic character” is “shocking.”
And Jack Danforth, a former Missouri GOP senator for nearly two decades, is so alarmed by the GOP field that he is now searching for an alternative.
Greitens has little regard for his Republican opponents and those who worry that his candidacy will imperil the party’s chance to take back the Senate this year.
In an interview with CNN, the former governor was defiant, asserting that he did “absolutely” nothing wrong with his former hairdresser, who alleged he tied her up, coerced her into oral sex and threatened to blackmail her with partially nude photos to cover up their affair.
“What’s absolutely been 100% clear now, from the beginning, is that the mainstream (media) and the Left worked together to lie,” Greitens said.
In 2018, then-Gov. Greitens faced calls for impeachment from the GOP-controlled state legislature and a criminal charge — invasion of privacy — related to the 2015 affair, which he admitted to while refuting the claim of blackmail. He was separately charged with another felony — tampering with computer data — for allegedly misusing a veterans charity’s donor list for his 2016 gubernatorial campaign.
Greitens’ hope of a political comeback relies upon following a Trumpian playbook: Convincing Missouri that he, the alleged perpetrator, is a victim. He points out that the criminal charges were dropped. A former FBI agent investigating the alleged blackmail was later indicted for perjury and tampering with physical evidence. A Missouri ethics panel found “no evidence of any wrongdoing” by Greitens in its investigation of campaign misconduct, although it fined his campaign for not reporting in-kind contributions.
Yet his accuser has never recanted her allegations of sexual misconduct, which were detailed in a GOP-led state House investigation that ultimately led to his resignation.
On Tuesday, Greitens told CNN that he resigned for his two children. He and his wife announced in 2020 they would divorce.
“It was the thing that I had to do for the people who I love the most, particularly for my boys, given those tremendous lies and the tremendous pressure that was on my kids,” said Greitens. “That was the right thing to do. And you know what’s beautiful? Is that sometimes God will hand you pain, and on the other side, you find wisdom. Sometimes he’ll hand you suffering and on the other side, you find strength.”
His Republican opponents clearly have a different view. Hartzler even said Tuesday that she would not vote for him if Greitens won the primary race.
“I’m a true conservative. It’s not conservative to tie a woman up in your basement and to assault her and to bring shame and disgrace on our state, and he did,” said Hartzler. “Missouri deserves better, and so that’s one reason I’m running.”
Before the scandals, Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, was a rising star within the Republican Party. In the Senate race, he has completely aligned himself with former President Donald Trump. He has spread the lie that Trump won the 2020 presidential election, said he would not support Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for Senate GOP leader and recently visited Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort, where he met with Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, who advises his Senate campaign.
Greitens has even tried to tie his experience to Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who both have faced allegations of sexual assault that they denied.
“I am so grateful because I now have the clarity to see what President Trump had to endure with the Russia collusion hoax, what happened with all the lies about Brett Kavanaugh,” he said.
Just one Republican pushes back on Trump’s false election claims
Greitens 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. All are pro-Trump Republicans eagerly seeking the former President’s endorsement.
Long said on Tuesday that he had a voicemail from Trump, wore a tie signed by him, carried in his breast pocket a fake $45 bill with a picture of Trump, and called him “the greatest President ever.” McCloskey said he campaigned for Trump in 2020 in Pennsylvania. Hartzler, who got a boost after securing the endorsement of Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, talked to Trump on Monday, and said he told her, “Keep up the good work.”
And Schmitt is holding a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser in March, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by CNN. A source familiar with the matter said Trump called Schmitt this week.
Among the major Missouri Senate Republican candidates, only Schatz has rejected Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Hartzler and Long voted in 2021 to not certify the results in Pennsylvania and Arizona, where President Joe Biden won. Long has defended an ad that said he “would stop the Democrats from stealing another election,” even as it was removed from YouTube for spreading misinformation.
Schmitt said on Tuesday he stood by his decision to sign on to a 2020 Texas lawsuit to invalidate the results of swing states Trump lost, which was rejected by the Supreme Court on the grounds that Texas lacked standing to sue. The state attorney general declined to answer a question on whether the election was stolen.
Asked if he agreed with Trump’s falsehood that the election was stolen, Greitens told CNN, “I do agree with the President. Yes, I do.”
Other candidates questioned the legitimacy of the election even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know because of all of the inconsistencies and the things that happened,” said Hartzler.
“I believe that when the mainstream media says, ‘this was the most secure and honest election in the history of America,’ when people go to those kinds of extremes, typically the opposite is true,” said McCloskey.
Only Schatz pushed back.
“I have not seen evidence personally that leads us to believe that it was ‘stolen,’ ” said Schatz.
“But we need to focus on the next election, and not the last one. That’s where we need to be looking forward to.”
Some within the GOP have tried to boost candidates against Greitens. In the past few weeks, Hawley and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas respectively endorsed two of Greitens’ opponents — Hartzler and Schmitt. And on Tuesday, the candidates sharpened their attacks on Greitens.
“There’s a lot of questions that were left unanswered when he left and so that’s going to be his job on the campaign,” said Schmitt of Greitens. “My focus remains the same, which is to remind people of all the work we’re doing to defend them, to protect Missouri values.”
Schmitt also said he was different than Greitens because “I’m never gonna quit on Missouri.”
McCloskey, who gained notoriety for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter demonstrators from the front yard of his St Louis mansion a couple years ago, said “obviously everybody does” have concerns about Greitens becoming the Senate GOP nominee. He said anyone could read the state House Special Investigative Committee’s report.
“You don’t have to listen to the news. You don’t have to listen to spin. Just read those 23 pages,” said McCloskey. “You will find out there is no exoneration, because it shows his basic character in a way that I think would be shocking to the average person if they just read it.”
Some Republicans say that any GOP candidate who wins the primary campaign will defeat the Democratic nominee in Missouri, where Trump won by more than 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.
“I have no doubt whoever wins the Republican primary will win the general election,” said Missouri GOP Rep. Jason Smith.
Long said he would support the Missouri Senate Republican nominee but warned that if Greitens won the primary, the party would have to divert tens of millions of dollars from other races to help him defeat the Democratic candidate in a red state. Long said he told Trump in August that the party could instead spend that money to defeat Democratic senators in Arizona or Georgia.
“It’s not that he’s not electable, but we’re going to spend $40, 50 million, the Republican Party is, to try and drag him across the finish line,” Long said.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN on Monday that he had heard the concerns about Greitens as the potential Missouri Senate GOP nominee.
“We have great people running in Missouri,” Scott said. “In my role as the chair of NRSC, there’s a lot of people that have expressed some concerns about why Eric Greitens resigned, but the voters are going to make a decision. … It’s the NRSC’s job to support the decision of the voters.”
Asked if he personally had any concerns about Greitens’ candidacy, Scott replied, “I’m not going to weigh in on any primaries.”
Danforth, the former Missouri senator and one-time ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN that none of the current candidates appeal to him and is looking for an independent contender. He said that the Republican Senate candidates’ messages are “so exclusively directed at the so-called ‘base’ of the party that everybody else is just treated as out to lunch.”
“They see the country as a war,” Danforth added. “They see Americans as being allies or enemies. And it is very destructive of our country — very destructive — because what America is, and what America aspires to be, is a country where somehow all kinds of different people — with their wonderful diversity, and their wonderful different points of view, and interests and opinions — somehow live together.”
Democrats hope that their Senate nominee, whether it’s former state Sen. Scott Sifton, Marine veteran Lucas Kunce or another candidate, get the chance to run against Greitens in November.
“The dude is a faker,” Kunce told CNN of Greitens.
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this article.