WASHINGTON — Accusations that Eric Greitens, a leading Republican contender for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, physically assaulted members of his family added fresh urgency to ensure the GOP doesn’t nominate candidates who are so damaged that they risk otherwise safe seats.
Greitens has so far ignored calls to end his campaign from virtually every notable Missouri Republican, including his rivals in the August primary and Sen. Roy Blunt, whose retirement left the seat open. But it had reverberations beyond Missouri, serving as a reminder that Greitens is at least the third statewide Republican this cycle to face accusations of domestic violence.
In other states with competitive Senate races, including Arizona, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, leading GOP candidates are aggressively courting former President Donald Trump even after he inspired the violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Others are embracing controversial policy positions on issues like abortion and health care.
For now, Republicans are well positioned to retake the Senate majority, aiming to capitalize on President Joe Biden’s unpopularity and concerns about inflation amid rising gas prices. But as the 2022 primary season intensifies later this spring, those advantages could be threatened if the GOP’s most loyal voters rally around candidates who may be popular among the base but toxic in a general election campaign, where moderates are often much more decisive.
That concern was clear as Republicans abandoned Greitens, who was forced from the governor's office in 2018 amid a sex scandal.
“He is even more unfit for public office now than in 2018 when I denounced his behavior and called for him to resign as governor,” said Missouri Republican donor David Humphreys, whose family gave $2.2 million to Greitens’ campaign in 2016. “Of course he should drop out; he should never have entered the race in the first place.”
In a sworn affidavit made public on Monday, Greitens' ex-wife, Sheena Greitens, detailed an encounter in which he “knocked me down." She also described "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.”
Greitens forcefully denied the accusations as “completely fabricated” and “baseless.”
“I am seeking full custody of my sons, and for their sake, I will continue to pray for their mother and hope that she gets the help that she needs,” he said in a statement issued from his Twitter account.
In a social media post Tuesday, Sheena Greitens insisted her allegations in the affidavit were true.
“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,” she wrote in a statement. “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.”
Given this week's developments, strategists in both parties suggest that a Greitens win in the state's Aug. 2 primary would give Democrats a legitimate opportunity to flip a Senate seat in deep-red Missouri, where Trump won by more than 15 percentage points in 2020. Even if Democrats do not ultimately prevail, a Greitens candidacy would likely force Republicans to devote energy and resources to the contest.
“It is a very safe Republican seat unless Eric Greitens wins the primary, and then it’s in play,” said Doug Heye, a Washington-based Republican strategist. “It's still Missouri, but Democrats are going to have a chance.”
With the Senate currently evenly divided, Republicans need to gain just one seat to regain the majority. But the Greitens allegations surfaced as the party is already sorting through challenges elsewhere.
Trump-backed Republican candidate Sean Parnell was forced to suspend his Pennsylvania Senate campaign after losing custody of his children following allegations of physical abuse. In Georgia, leading Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker has faced scrutiny of his turbulent personal history, which includes his acknowledged struggles with mental health, violent outbursts and accusations that he repeatedly threatened his ex-wife.
More broadly, GOP primary races in other states are tipping into decidedly nasty territory. A Republican primary debate in Ohio last week devolved into a near-physical altercation between two candidates. Trump, meanwhile, will be in Georgia this weekend to rally his supporters against the state's incumbent Republican governor as retribution for his refusal to cooperate with the then-president's effort to overturn the 2020 election.
For his part, Greitens is focusing on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he blamed for orchestrating the latest scandal as part of a sustained effort to undermine his candidacy.
“You're going to be able to connect the dots directly to Mitch McConnell. You're going to be able to connect the dots directly to the RINO swamp who always does this,” Greitens said on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's podcast this week. “When I'm elected to the U.S. Senate we're taking on Mitch McConnell.”
McConnell has often pointed to the GOP’s loss in a 2014 Missouri Senate race as an example of what can happen when the party nominates a candidate who can’t win a general election. He tried to sidestep the issue Tuesday on Capitol Hill when pressed by reporters.
“I think all of the developments of the last 24 hours are things the people of Missouri are going to take into account both in the primary, and I would assume they would take into account in the general," he said.
Even before this week’s developments, Greitens was viewed as a vulnerable candidate in November’s general election in no small part because of the circumstances of his resignation as governor. He left office amid an investigation of an extramarital affair with his St. Louis hairdresser allegedly involving bondage and blackmail. An allegation of a photo taken without the woman’s consent for the purposes of blackmail led to a felony criminal charge, which was eventually dropped.
Still, Greitens was considered one of the strongest candidates in the August primary election given his name recognition, the implicit backing of some Trump’s allies and the crowded field of Republican candidates expected to split the vote.
Few expect him to leave the race immediately, although it's uncertain whether he can continue to raise campaign cash to sustain his bid. At the end of 2021, when he last filed a fundraising report, Greitens had only $290,000 cash on hand and was $154,000 in debt, records show.
“He’s doing no fundraisers around the state. No one will host one for him,” said former Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who lost the 2016 Republican gubernatorial primary to Greitens and is now backing one of Greitens’ Senate rivals. “His expectation is that he has an irreducible minimum floor (with voters) and he can get by with a crowded field.”
Greitens’ anemic fundraising has so far been partially offset by two super PACs backing him that are primarily financed by two GOP megadonors.
Bernie Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot, has put at least $1 million into a super PAC backing Greitens called Missouri First Action, records show. Billionaire Midwest shipping supply magnate Dick Uihlein, meanwhile, is the sole financier of Team PAC, a separate pro-Greitens super PAC.
“It doesn’t look like he’s a dropout candidate now,” Kinder added. “But he’s the only one who could make this a competitive seat.”
Peoples reported from New York. Hanna reported from Topeka, Kansas. Associated Press writer Summer Ballentine in Columbia, Missouri, contributed to this report.