Trump’s McConnell obsession leads him toward Eric GreitensMarch 4, 2022
Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens is rising in former President Donald Trump’s eyes — and an episode at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference shows why.
The controversial former governor ran into a Trump ally in Orlando, Fla., who jokingly offered him tickets to a Trump-hosted private reception — but with a catch: He had to tweet out his opposition to the former president’s archnemesis, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell .
No problem, Greitens laughed: He’d already said he wouldn’t support McConnell as Republican leader if elected, and he didn’t mind saying it again. After firing off a tweet declaring “No More RINOs [Republicans in Name Only]. I’m not voting for Mitch McConnell,” Greitens snapped up a pair of tickets and headed into Trump’s closed-door event.
The moment illustrates how Greitens — who resigned as governor in 2018 after his hairdresser accused him of sexually assaulting her — has gained favor with Trump and some in his inner circle. Greitens has staunchly aligned himself with the former president, become a favorite of the pro-Trump media universe, and distinguished himself as one of the few Republican Senate candidates willing to speak out against McConnell. Now, Trump, who in the past has privately criticized the former governor over the scandal that led to his downfall, is telling people he’s open to endorsing Greitens — despite fears among other powerful Republicans that the Missouri Republican is the only GOP candidate who could potentially lose the seat in November.
Trump’s flirtation with Greitens was on display Monday when he sent out a press release promoting the article the former governor wrote for Breitbart News last fall calling for McConnell’s ouster as leader. Last week, Trump privately met with the candidate for an hour at his Mar-a-Lago estate in South Florida, where Greitens came armed with a copy of that Breitbart op-ed and polling data showing him leading the primary field. Trump remarked that Greitens was performing well and told the former governor he had an open mind about whom he may support, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
Greitens was later invited to attend an event held by the pro-Trump super PAC the next day on the Mar-a-Lago grounds.
Yet, Trump’s newfound warmth toward Greitens has worried some of the former president’s advisers and allies, who worry that an endorsement could backfire on Trump and the Republican Party. Greitens, they argue, is a compromised candidate who could lose to a Democrat in the general election — and in turn, embarrass Trump.
“Eric Greitens, if he gets nominated, it’s the only way we can lose the general election for Senate in Missouri,” said Mark McCloskey, another Trump-aligned candidate in the race who gained notoriety in 2020 after brandishing an assault weapon while confronting Black Lives Matter protesters. “If President Trump endorses him, it can only be the result of a lack of sufficient information or bad advice from his associates,” added McCloskey, who spoke at Trump’s 2020 convention.
(“It’s sad that Mark has chosen to criticize President Trump’s team,” responded Steven Cheung, a Greitens campaign consultant and Trump alum.)
Trump’s interest in Greitens has intensified in recent days. During a meeting with Trump last week, Club for Growth President David McIntosh talked up Greitens and urged the former president to support him. While Club for Growth hasn’t endorsed Greitens, the organization’s top donor, billionaire shipping and industrial supply company executive Richard Uihlein, is bankrolling a pro-Greitens super PAC.
Those close to Trump say his attraction to Greitens largely centers on the former governor’s scorched-earth attacks on McConnell. While Greitens has made his opposition to McConnell a centerpiece of his campaign, other Missouri candidates haven’t taken that step. Trump aides point out that while at CPAC, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt declined to say whether he’d vote against McConnell. Another contender, Rep. Billy Long , recently met with McConnell to talk about the race.
Trump advisers say there is also a more personal dimension to his interest. Some in Trump’s orbit have made the case to the former president that there are parallels between the New York attorney general’s investigation into his company’s finances and the St. Louis prosecutor’s inquiry into allegations that Greitens took a nude picture of his hairdresser without her consent and threatened to release it if she divulged their affair. Greitens, who left office after top Missouri Republicans called on him to step down, has attempted to portray himself as the victim of a liberal prosecutor bent on destroying him.
And there is another reason why Trump has gravitated to the former governor: He’s persistently led in surveys, something that appeals to the polling-obsessed former president.
An endorsement, Trump advisers caution, is no sure thing. To do so, he’ll have to cross an ally, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley , who has come out in support of a rival candidate, GOP Rep. Vicky Hartzler .
(Whether Trump would endorse Hartzler is far from clear, however: He has been informed that immediately following the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, Hartzler accused the former president of making “unpresidential remarks” and said “many” of the rioters “supported President Trump.”)
Getting behind Greitens would also carry risk for Trump, who has long been fixated on whether his endorsed candidates prevail. Last fall, a Trump-endorsed Senate candidate, Pennsylvania Republican Sean Parnell, dropped out after losing a child custody case to his estranged wife, who had accused him of abuse. Trump is also supporting several statewide candidates who are lagging in fundraising, including Senate hopefuls Kelly Tshibaka of Alaska and Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, and Georgia gubernatorial candidate David Perdue, the former senator.
Gregg Keller, a longtime Missouri-based strategist who is working for a pro-Schmitt super PAC, said that public polling had consistently shown Greitens with a low ceiling of support — meaning that a rival candidate could eventually surpass him.
“President Trump would make a serious political miscalculation to endorse a candidate with Eric Greitens’ incomparable baggage who 75 percent of primary voters know and are saying they don’t want to vote for,” Keller said.
Regardless of whether Trump endorses Greitens, senior Republicans say they are determined to prevent him from winning the nomination for fear he could lose the seat to a Democrat. Within the highest levels of the party, there are discussions about launching a well-funded effort devoted to stopping Greitens. One potential vehicle that’s been mentioned is a newly launched pro-Hartzler super PAC overseen by Chris Cox, a former top National Rifle Association official. Others argue that any anti-Greitens effort should be based in Missouri rather than Washington, to prevent Greitens from casting it as McConnell-orchestrated.
Any sustained effort to ensure a non-Greitens candidate wins the primary would need the support of major GOP donors. The party’s most prominent contributor, Las Vegas billionaire Miriam Adelson, appears to be among those looking at contenders other than the former governor. During last fall’s gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Adelson’s top political gatekeeper, Andy Abboud, quietly met with Schmitt. Adelson, however, has yet to donate to any candidate in the race.
In an interview, Long called Greitens “Chuck Schumer’s candidate,” suggesting that Senate Democrats want him on the ballot in the fall. “So every Republican in town is trying to figure out how to keep Greitens from winning,” Long added.
But Long was skeptical that any effort to highlight the former governor’s past scandal would do any good, given that its already been extensively chronicled.
“I’m like, ‘What are you going to attack him on?’ Everything he’s ever done is out there and been out there,” Long said. “So I’m not sure their theory is good, I’m not sure they can take him down. What are you going to tell people about him that they don’t already know? Come on.”