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High-stakes Senate primary tests Missouri Republicans’ tolerance for an Eric Greitens return

By Simone Pathe, CNN

Paula Callihan hasn’t quite decided whom she’s voting for in Tuesday’s crowded GOP Senate primary.

But she knows whom she’s not voting for.

“Eric Greitens scares the crap out of me,” the 67-year-old Joplin resident said last week in this southwest corner of the state. “A machine gun going through killing RINOs. I mean, that’s terrible,” she said, recalling the campaign video that depicted the former Republican governor “hunting” so-called “Republicans in Name Only.”

The candidacy of Greitens, who resigned in 2018 amid a sex scandal and accusations of campaign misconduct and is now facing allegations of abuse from his ex-wife, is a big reason why a Senate race in Missouri — a deeply red state — is even part of the national conversation about Washington control in a tough national environment for Democrats.

Greitens, who has denied those allegations, started the race to succeed retiring Sen. Roy Blunt with high name recognition. Only after a super PAC started attacking him on the air this summer did Republicans worried about Greitens losing to a Democrat — or perhaps even winning himself in November — begin to breathe a small sigh of relief.

The great unknown, however, has been former President Donald Trump, who announced Monday that he was endorsing “Eric,” without specifying a last name. Greitens, who is allied with Donald Trump Jr. and his fiancée, and state Attorney General Eric Schmitt were each quick to claim that they were the intended recipient of the endorsement.

“I trust the Great People of Missouri, on this one, to make up their own minds,” the former President added in his statement.

In conversations with about 45 Missourians across the state last week, mostly Republicans, some said they were sticking by Greitens, and even those who weren’t expressed skepticism about the allegations. But the majority said they had issues with the candidate, ranging from “his baggage” to the fact that he was a “quitter” for resigning as governor.

Those frustrations with Greitens have cleared lanes in the GOP primary for US Rep. Vicky Hartzler and Schmitt, who have spent the final days of the race going after one another, with China a frequent flashpoint.

“It’s between us now,” Hartzler said of Schmitt, speaking to a group of voters at a wood-paneled restaurant above the Joplin Stockyards on Tuesday. “He’s a lawyer from St. Louis. I’m a farmer from rural Missouri.” Schmitt and his allies, meanwhile, have pivoted to attacking the congresswoman as he tries to run as a Washington outsider, peppering his stump speech with references to lawsuits he’s filed against the Biden administration.

But they’re only two of the 21 candidates seeking the nomination, which includes another sitting congressman and attorney Mark McCloskey, who uses the infamous image of him and his wife pointing guns at protesters outside their St. Louis home on his campaign yard signs.

With no runoff rules in Missouri, all it takes is a plurality to win. The Democrats have their own crowded field, but it’s the GOP primary that will determine just how competitive this race will be in November.

Voters’ complicated relationship with Greitens

Temperatures lingering above 100 degrees didn’t stop southwest Missouri’s GOP faithful from setting up their lawn chairs Tuesday evening in Neosho to nibble on watermelon and hear two hours’ worth of speeches from candidates up and down the ticket, although Hartzler and McCloskey were the only Senate contenders to show up.

Hartzler, a social conservative backed by the state’s junior senator, Republican Josh Hawley, said early in the race that she wouldn’t vote for Greitens if he was the nominee. “When I need to see a hairdresser, I make an appointment,” she said in one of her first ads, a not-so-subtle allusion to her opponent.

Greitens’ former hairdresser alleged that he had tied her up, coerced her into oral sex and threatened to blackmail her with partially nude photos to cover up their 2015 affair. Greitens’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but he told CNN in an interview in February that he did “absolutely” nothing wrong with the hairdresser.

As governor in 2018, he faced calls for impeachment from the GOP-controlled state legislature and a criminal charge — invasion of privacy — related to the affair, which he admitted to while refuting the claim of blackmail. The former Navy SEAL was separately charged with another felony — tampering with computer data — for allegedly misusing a veterans charity’s donor list for his 2016 gubernatorial campaign.

The criminal charges were later dropped. And a former FBI agent investigating the blackmail allegations 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. The GOP-led state House investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations ultimately led to his resignation.

“It was the thing that I had to do for the people who I love the most, particularly for my boys,” Greitens told CNN in February.

But the headlines for him got worse the following month when his former wife alleged that he had been physically abusive toward his children and her. The anti-Greitens group, Show Me Values PAC, has brought those allegations to living rooms across the state, with a recent ad featuring a female narrator reading from his ex-wife’s affidavit.

“It’s a black eye for Missouri,” 42-year-old Matt Fischer, a Schmitt supporter, said at a rally for the attorney general at Tropical Liqueurs South in Columbia on Wednesday, adding that Greitens has already made “the state look bad.”

“I would have (considered Greitens) if he hadn’t had all of his baggage,” 68-year-old Debbie Brewer said at the Ozark Distillery and Brewery in Osage Beach after attending events for both Schmitt and Hartzler on Wednesday. “We don’t need that distraction.”

Show Me Values PAC has spent more than $6 million against Greitens, according to AdImpact data through Friday.

“Somebody had to do something. Neither Hartzler or Schmitt were laying a glove on him, and he was going to win,” said a Missouri Republican strategist who’s unaffiliated in the primary.

Still, there are degrees of skepticism among some voters about the allegations against Greitens. While some chalked up the most recent ones to an ugly divorce, others suggested, without evidence, that they were “just things being thrown at him” by political opponents, as one woman at the Watermelon Feed in Neosho put it.

“He got a raw deal when he was governor,” 72-year-old Charlie Henry said as he unloaded a case of Busch beer outside the Blue Springs Walmart.

Troy Pierson, 42, of Seneca, said at the Watermelon Feed that he was leaning toward Greitens in the primary but has some reservations over the candidate’s 2018 resignation: “Him doing that makes you wonder whether or not he will stand up and fight, which is a concern, because that’s what we need.”

Disappointment with Greitens for resigning is a familiar refrain, and it’s one Schmitt has made a big part of his closing argument.

“He abused his wife and his kid — assaulted his child — and he quit on Missouri,” Schmitt said at his Columbia rally. “This man is a quitter. And when going gets tough, he got going.”

The threat of last-minute Trump involvement

While the politicians at the Watermelon Feed name-dropped Trump onstage, a life-size cardboard cutout of the former President was notably not front and center but tucked away next to the information tent, where filing out a “straw quiz” qualified you to win South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s book, a $10 Chick-fil-A gift card or .22 ammo.

Trump had previously praised Senate hopeful Billy Long, the congressman who represents much of southwest Missouri, but stopped short of an endorsement. The former President came out with a statement earlier this month saying he would not back Hartzler — a surprise to the six-term lawmaker, who boasts in her stump speech that Twitter has suspended her campaign account for her comments about keeping transgender athletes out of women’s sports.

But her lack of support from Trump didn’t seem to concern GOP voters, even those who haven’t made up their minds. “I thought, well, yeah, because they’re not the same kind of people. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get things done,” said Trump voter Allison Lupo, 56, who praised Hartzler’s “quiet strength” as she sipped on a drink in a Schmitt koozie at his Columbia rally.

Schmitt’s opening line channels the kind of anti-establishment energy Trump cultivated in Washington. “I get up in the morning and go to work. I sue Joe Biden, I go home, and then I get up the next day and do all that over again.” It goes over well with his crowds, especially those who think Hartzler has been in DC too long, even if they like her as their congresswoman.

“I know the President is considering an endorsement. I’d love to have it,” Schmitt told reporters Wednesday in Columbia. He added that he wouldn’t support Mitch McConnell for Senate leader — an appeal to Trump and his base, who dislike the Kentucky Republican — and would instead like to see Sens. Ted Cruz or Mike Lee, both of whom have endorsed Schmitt, run.

But that’s a pledge Greitens had already made, and one that Hartzler soon made too, releasing a statement the morning after Schmitt’s comments.

Democrats vie for a chance at an uphill battle

The selfie line after Marine veteran Lucas Kunce’s 7 p.m. rally on Wednesday moved so slowly that it was dark by the time the last voters had left the outdoor amphitheater in Columbia.

The Marine veteran is running a populist campaign, on the premise that a Democrat like him can win Missouri by picking off enough voters in rural areas to narrow Republican margins.

“He seems like he’s, you know, down-home people like us,” said Linda Evans, 72, as she was coming out of the Walmart in Blue Springs.

But Kunce has strong primary competition from Trudy Busch Valentine, an heir to the beer fortune, who entered the race late and had invested more than $5 million of her own money through July 28.

“Even though she comes from the Anheuser Busch family, it seems that she has a commonsense approach to what our needs are right now,” said 59-year-old Becky Wenzel of Dearborn, while sitting at the Ozark Distillery near her family’s weekend house.

Not all voters share that view.

“Busch comes from money, so she wouldn’t be a good choice,” said John Gaskey, 68, of Gladstone who was vacationing in Lake Ozark.

Valentine, who just scored the endorsement of the St. Louis mayor, pushed back on that criticism, saying in a phone interview with CNN on Thursday, “There is no vote I can buy.”

The independent candidacy of John Wood, a former senior investigator for the House January 6 committee and a self-described “conservative” and “lifelong Republican,” adds an element of uncertainty to the general election. Neither Kunce nor Valentine would admit last week that their challenge in November would be tougher if Greitens weren’t the GOP nominee.

“I don’t think it is, with the two of them in there, splitting the vote,” Kunce said, previewing a potential fall race with Schmitt and Wood. “I mean, you got their little civil war, you know, the country club Republicans versus the Trump side. It’ll be quite the adventure.”

This story has been updated Monday with Trump’s endorsement of “Eric.”

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