ST. LOUIS — Eric Greitens stepped aside as Missouri's governor in 2018 amid a scandal involving accusations of blackmail, bondage and sexual assault. As he attempts a political comeback this year with a U.S. Senate bid, his ex-wife has said Greitens physically abused her and one of their children.
It once took far less to end a political career. But at a recent meeting of the St. Charles County Pachyderm Club in a largely Republican area of suburban St. Louis, GOP voters engaged in genuine debate over whether they'd support Greitens in the August primary.
Bob Sullentrup, the club's 70-year-old president, dismissed Greitens as "damaged goods."
"He's going to get creamed," he said. "That baggage will follow him."
Others, including several women, weren't so sure. Sharon Kumnick of Weldon Springs said she'd vote for Greitens if he's the GOP nominee, noting "everybody's divorce, when they want more than is offered, is contentious."
Tina Maloney, a real estate investor from St. Charles, said Greitens should stay in the race.
"I don't think just because you're accused of something in this day and age that you should drop out," Maloney said. "This is what they always do," she said, citing the sexual assault allegations that emerged against Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court nomination hearing.
"It shows character to fight," Maloney added.
That sentiment is reinforcing Greitens' refusal to leave the race, posing the latest test of the GOP's openness to men accused of physical or sexual abuse. Greitens is convinced that by casting himself as a conservative fighter in the mold of former President Donald Trump, he can win the Republican nomination for Missouri's open U.S. Senate seat even though many of his political benefactors abandoned him and the party's establishment wishes he would just go away.
"I am going to win," Greitens said in an email, calling his ex-wife's accusations "false" and a "political hit job."
Indeed, Trump is perhaps the GOP's best example that candidates can power through abuse allegations. He won the 2016 campaign despite accusations of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women. In this year's midterms, Herschel Walker is poised to become the GOP's nominee for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia despite making repeated threats on his ex-wife's life. A Republican candidate for governor in Nebraska, Charles W. Herbster, was accused last week of groping several women.
Sean Parnell, a Republican who sought a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, is the rare example of a candidate who ended his campaign after allegations of abuse. He only did so after losing a court fight over custody of his three children.
The string of allegations concern some Republicans who worry that the party will rally behind candidates who will be unable to win the general election, when moderate voters often play a more decisive role. With the Senate evenly divided, the GOP can't afford to lose what would otherwise be a safe seat.
That anxiety has deepened in Missouri after Trudy Busch Valentine, an heiress to the Anheuser-Busch fortune whose family history is deeply intertwined with the state, entered the Senate race last month as a Democrat. Many in the party have unified behind Valentine as the best chance to flip the seat.
In her personal capacity, Pat Thomas, the state GOP's treasurer, has called on Greitens to leave the race. She said Valentine's entrance makes it even more urgent for someone other than Greitens to emerge as the nominee.
"I am certainly concerned that (she) could be a problem," Thomas said.
Greitens, a former Navy SEAL and Rhodes Scholar, was considered an early frontrunner in the crowded Republican primary to replace retiring GOP Sen. Roy Blunt. But his campaign was rocked last month when his ex-wife, Sheena Greitens, filed a sworn affidavit as part of a child custody case that accused Eric Greitens of displaying such "unstable and coercive behavior" in 2018 that others took steps to limit his access to firearms.
In the affidavit, Sheena Greitens said he once knocked her down, took her wallet, keys and phone, and prevented her from leaving their home with their two children. She also accused Eric Greitens of striking their eldest son and pulling him around by his hair, among other claims.
Eric Greitens says that's all false. And he, his allies and his attorneys have used hardball tactics to try to discredit her.
In statements, interviews, a press conference and on social media, they've portrayed Sheena Greitens as a liar "with a documented history of mental illness." They've also accused her of working in conspiracy with a web of Republican figures to take down Eric Greitens' candidacy, among them Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., longtime Republican operative Karl Rove and Greitens' former 2016 campaign manager Austin Chambers, who has staunchly defended Sheena Greitens.
"Everyone smelled right away that this was a political hit job," Eric Greitens said.
His attorneys have filed subpoena requests seeking phone records from Sheena Greitens, her sister, as well as Rove and Chambers, whose attorneys derided the effort an "abuse of judicial process" by a "floundering campaign."
But Eric Greitens says that if the allegations against him were true, there is no way his ex-wife would have agreed two years ago to a court-approved parenting plan. An affidavit she filed at the time stated that it was in the "best interest" of the children for the parents to share joint custody, a discrepancy that he argues amounts to perjury in light of her most recent statements accusing him of abuse.
Sheena Greitens says she told "multiple lawyers, therapists, and our mediator, in 2018 and afterward" about the abuse allegations. She also says she will provide evidence in court, including pictures and documentation of their communications. The parenting agreement came at the time she was moving to Texas for her job.
"I had to make concessions that I did not want to make," she said in a court filing.
Ultimately, she says that her ex-husband's current behavior feels like a repeat of 2018, when he resigned rather than go under oath to respond to allegations made by his former hairdresser, who testified that he blindfolded and restrained her in his basement, assaulted her and appeared to take a compromising photo to pressure her to keep quiet about an affair. He has acknowledged the affair, but has denied taking pictures.
"When his political future is at risk, he becomes erratic, unhinged, coercive and threatening," Sheena Greitens stated in a recent court filing. "He accuses me of things that are untrue and generates conspiracy theories about me collaborating with his enemies when I have done no such thing."
For now, the political fallout from the episode is uncertain.
There are signs the dispute could galvanize the pro-Trump base. Many online conservative outlets have sided with Greitens while criticizing his ex-wife, a college professor at the University of Texas who specializes in Asian affairs. And Greitens' campaign says they saw a dramatic uptick in donations since the allegations were made public, taking in over $100,000 in 14 days.
But he's also drawn harsh condemnation from many leading Republicans in Missouri. Sen. Josh Hawley, who served as Missouri's attorney general when Greitens was governor, said in a statement that if you hit a woman or child, "you belong in handcuffs, not the United States Senate. It's time for Eric Greitens to leave this race."
Greitens' leading opponents had stern words, too, calling on him to to be jailed, drop out or seek help. But not everyone was quick to fully condemn.
Gov. Mike Parson said he believed Sheena Greitens, but stopped short of urging Eric Greitens to end his candidacy. The Missouri Republican Party also hasn't taken a stand on Greitens' future.
Thomas, the state party's treasurer, said "the best thing he can do is suspend his campaign."
She also noted that while Greitens accused the woman he had an affair with as well as his ex-wife of lying, they've both made their statements under oath — which Eric Greitens has not done.
"Why hasn't he gone under oath?" Thomas asked. "If he had nothing to hide and wanted to put this all to bed, why doesn't he do that for his supporters?"
Slodysko reported from Washington.