Will Eric Greitens doom Republicans in Missouri?

In the 2022 midterm elections, Missouri will host an election to replace retiring Republican U.S. Senator Roy Blunt. Normally, not many national political observers would give much thought to the race to succeed him. Given how red Missouri has become in recent years, most would probably assume the seat will safely remain in Republican hands. Indeed, the three major election handicappers have initially rated the race either “solid Republican” or “likely Republican.”

However, the return of former Republican Governor Eric Greitens, who resigned in disgrace in 2018 amid allegations that he sexually assaulted his hairstylist, has made some state Republicans nervous about the party’s chances of retaining Blunt’s seat — and in a midterm election that will determine which party controls the Senate during the second half of Joe Biden’s first term. According to a new Politico story:

The former governor could face an avalanche of attacks from Republican establishment-aligned groups amid concerns from party leaders that his nomination would jeopardize the party’s hold on what should be a safe seat and imperil their prospects of winning the Senate majority.

This isn’t the first time the topic of Greitens’ electoral viability has surfaced in this election cycle. State Republicans have fretted that the party’s growing Senate primary field could split the anti-Greitens vote and allow him to win the nomination with a small plurality. And his dicey (and very recent) past has called into question for some whether he could win a general election.

So, just how risky would a Greitens nomination be for Republicans in the Missouri Senate race next year?

Let’s first establish some context about the state’s political landscape. While Democrats were competitive in Missouri within just the last decade, the state swung heavily to the right in the Trump era. In 2016, it was still home to some close races, including for U.S. Senate (incumbent Republican Roy Blunt won re-election by just 2.6 points) and governor (Greitens won the open seat by a modest 5.5 points). However, that same cycle, Trump carried the state by nearly 20 points — after Romney won it by 9.6 points in 2012 — presaging Missouri’s longer-term shift away from Democrats.

Over the two subsequent election cycles, the Show-Me State’s red hue became even more apparent. In 2018, while much of the country experienced a blue wave that swept Democrats to power in Congress and statehouses, Democrats in Missouri largely faltered. Two-term Senator Claire McCaskill, who had the benefit of running in Democratic-friendly cycles during her first two races, finally ran out of magic and lost her seat to Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley. The party also made zero gains in the state legislature. While some thought that Democratic state auditor candidate Nicole Galloway cracked the state’s code, as she won by the same margin by which McCaskill lost, it was widely acknowledged that her Republican opponent was a weak candidate. And in 2020, when Galloway challenged GOP Governor Mike Parson, she lost by a massive 16.4 points. This, while Trump carried Missouri once again — by a margin that was slightly smaller than in 2016 (15.4 points) but nonetheless impressive — and Republicans held onto their massive supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature.

This all sets the stage for 2022. While Missouri was considered purple-ish less than a decade ago, Democrats could soon be locked out of all statewide offices for the first time since 1870. However, Greitens could pose a uniquely difficult challenge for Republicans. Near the end of his short-lived governorship in April 2018, as he battled allegations of sexual assault, a Missouri Scout poll found that only 37% of Missourians approved of him compared to 51% who disapproved. Just 12% of Democrats and 31% of independents approved of Greitens, though he still had the approval of a majority (57%) of Republicans.

It’s unclear how much Greitens’ reputation has recovered since then. So far, Republican primary voters seem to be back on board with him. A handful of primary polls have shown him with a commanding lead over his opponents. If another candidate from the party’s very crowded and growing field does not emerge as the obvious alternative to Greitens, he has a strong chance of becoming the next Republican U.S. Senate nominee.

So then, what are his prospects for winning a general election? There are a few considerations here, including the state of the Democratic primary field, which as of this writing is virtually nonexistent. The highest-profile candidate to have announced at this point is Scott Sifton, a longtime state legislator out of the St. Louis area. Beyond Sifton, none of the other declared Democrats have ever held elected office (though Marine veteran Lucas Kunce has already received some attention from national outlets). Former Governor Jay Nixon and current Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas have also been mentioned as possible candidates, but neither has taken concrete steps toward a campaign yet (Lucas has only said he’s “considering” a run).

Two public polls, both from Remington Research Group, gauged Sifton’s viability against Greitens and found that Greitens held healthy 7- and 8-point leads. Because Democratic voters are likely to overwhelmingly reject any Republican nominee — in the polls, they backed Sifton over both Greitens and Attorney General Eric Schmitt by more than 70 points — the most important blocs will be independents and Republicans. The two polls showed Greitens besting Sifton among independents, but by a much smaller margin (averaging 46–42%) than Schmitt (53–34%). If Greitens has a potential weak spot, this is probably it.

Among Republican voters, however, Greitens earns around 78–12%. While this margin could be stronger — Schmitt wins them 83–8% — there is still plenty of time for him to close ranks ahead of a general election. Moreover, in 2018, a year that heavily favored Democrats across the country, self-identified Republicans made up a plurality (37%) of the Missouri electorate compared to Democrats (31%) and independents (32%), which corresponded with strong GOP performance in the state. (While there was no 2020 exit polling data in Missouri, Republicans’ much larger statewide margins that cycle are a sign that the Republican vote share may have been even larger.) If Greitens were to win the GOP nomination and further consolidate Republican support, it would take a significant number of independent defections to truly endanger him in the general election.

One way Greitens is trying to keep Republican voters with him is by using the Trump playbook to overcome scandal, including running a grievance-filled campaign that at times breaches conspiracy territory. Trump famously refused to back down over a deluge of allegations on everything from sexual assault and rape to tax fraud to abuse of power, often deflecting responsibility and instead punching back. It’s an approach that other politicians have sought to replicate in recent years, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz. Since first teasing his return to politics in summer 2020, Greitens has wholeheartedly embraced this approach, using his perceived mistreatment by the prosecuting attorney who charged him in 2018 as a rallying cry. He has also tried to better ingratiate himself with GOP primary voters by appearing on Rudy Giuliani’s podcast and going to Arizona to promote the state Republican Party’s audit of the 2020 election results.

Of course, so much about Greitens’ chances comes down to a host of unknowns: Will one of the current Democratic Senate candidates catch fire and become a serious challenger? Will a more prominent Democrat join the field? Is Missouri now so red that Greitens does not risk much by simply playing to the Republican base? What will turnout look like for both parties now with Trump no longer in office or on the ballot? Will the 2022 midterm see the same dynamics as almost every other previous midterm — with a backlash against the party that controls the White House — or will Democrats defy history? And even if they do, does that even matter in a state as red as Missouri?

It is possible that if one or two things go Democrats’ way, they will have a chance to win this Senate seat next year with Greitens as the nominee. Still, the basic political picture in Missouri is currently such that team blue will have an uphill climb in statewide races for the foreseeable future. Even if Greitens is on the other side of the equation, it’s hard to see a scenario in which that reality changes.

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