With Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens promising to fight for his job, members of both political parties already are focusing on how the governor’s woes — whether he stays or goes — could affect this fall’s elections.
The question, eight months out, is how big the impact will be.
Greitens has acknowledged having an extramarital affair in 2015, before he ran for governor. A St. Louis grand jury recently indicted him for allegedly taking a partially nude photo of the woman without her consent and transmitting the photo in a manner "that allowed access to [the] image via a computer."
Even amid rumblings of impeachment, the Republican has made clear he has no plans to step aside. With his trial now set for May 14, the governor’s allies have formed a new nonprofit to help cover his legal expenses. The nonprofit won’t have to identify its donors for at least awhile.
Meanwhile, the governor’s legal troubles, and their potential impact on the state’s political climate, have been the hot topic in Jefferson City for weeks.
State Rep. Marsha Haefner, a Republican from Oakville, is among the few in her party to publicly call for Greitens to step down. She says there’s no question that his behavior hurts the GOP’s image.
“It’s not just the affair. It’s lying about it. Running on ‘integrity and family values,’ only to find out that those are just words, not who he is,” she said. “And then you look at the other investigations that are taking place.”
A lot of the questions, from both parties, center on the impact that the governor’s troubles could have on the state’s U.S. Senate contest – one of the most closely watched in the country.
When the GOP’s best-known candidate, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, officially filed last week in the state capital, one of the first questions he fielded from reporters was about the governor.
Hawley sought to make it clear that he wasn’t going to comment on the indictment or the upcoming trial.
“The criminal justice system in this state needs to be allowed to proceed without regard to party or to partisanship — or without party or partisan interference,” he said.
But that’s not stopping national allies of Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill from trying to make Greitens an anchor around Hawley’s neck.
A third-party group with ties to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, is spending more than $1 million on a TV ad that tries to tie Hawley to Greitens.
The ad begins with footage from a newscast, “Governor Eric Greitens has been indicted!” Amid ominous music, an announcer then says, “Scandals in Jefferson City. Now, real questions about Attorney General Josh Hawley ...”
McCaskill embraced that same approach when she headlined her party’s annual Democrat Days event last weekend in Hannibal. She is criticizing Hawley for promising during his 2016 campaign to take on government corruption, and accuses him of now going easy on Greitens.
“The things he promised to do in his campaign, he has failed to deliver on — particularly his promise that he was somehow going to be large and in charge of public corruption,” McCaskill said. “He clearly has whiffed every opportunity he has had to get at that problem.”
Hawley campaign spokeswoman Kelli Ford accused McCaskill of “speaking out of both sides of her mouth” when it comes to Greitens’ indictment. Ford was referring to McCaskill’s recent call for politicians to keep quiet until the court case is concluded.
“On one hand, she says she doesn’t want to politicize it, but her party and her campaign are doing just that,” Ford said. “Josh will continue to focus on the facts and not play politics. But it’s clear Claire McCaskill is only interested in scoring political points."
Hawley recently cleared Greitens of any wrongdoing in his staff’s use of a special texting application, called Confide, that erases text messages soon after they are read. The attorney general now has undertaken a new investigation into Greitens’ campaign activities involving The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that the governor set up years ago to help fellow military veterans.
Some Democrats admit that they wouldn’t mind if Greitens succeeds in staying in office. Partly because they want to use the governor as a political punching bag, and also because some fear that Lt. Gov. Mike Parson – a respected former state senator – may unite the GOP.
Others believe that since Republicans control most of Missouri’s state government, it’s up to the GOP to deal with Greitens.
“Some of my colleagues have called on the governor to resign. I have said that he should certainly consider resigning,” said state Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood. “But I think as a party in the minority, we’re waiting and seeing what happens. Because we’re in the minority, we don’t feel it’s our position to take the lead. We feel there are Republicans leading the charge.”
State Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber maintains that his party has a moral obligation to highlight Greitens’ shortcomings.
“He’s brought shame to Republicans in the state. And he’s a stain on our politics,” Webber said during his banquet speech at Democrat Days. “And if the Republican Party doesn’t have the moral courage to stand up and point out the obvious, then the Democrat Party will.”
If Greitens hangs on, he could impact more than just the U.S. Senate race — but also contests for state auditor and the Missouri General Assembly.
“It’s my job to fight corruption in government, secrecy in government,” said state Auditor Nicole Galloway. “And we’ve seen a pattern of secrecy, intimidation in this administration. From ‘dark money’ to eliminating protections for whistleblowers. And the definition of auditor is to root out corruption, waste, fraud, abuse. And so, it has the potential, I think, to be an issue in the race.”
The potentially wide-ranging impact of Greitens’ scandal prompted heavy GOP hitters like U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner of Ballwin to say their party needs to deal with the Greitens investigations swiftly.
Wagner also warns against downplaying the accusations. “I do believe that elected officials and those that serve with the public trust should be held to a higher standard,” she said.
Not everybody is viewing the Greitens situation through a political lens. When asked about the governor’s impact on this election cycle, Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt suggested that the matter was more personal than political.
Blunt, who has said he’ll campaign for Hawley, said he was “more concerned about the stress” that Greitens’ troubles cause for “the state and the governor’s family and the legislature …”
“I certainly haven’t given any thought to any political consequences,” Blunt added.
But that’s not true for many others in the state.
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