Eric Greitens
Then Missouri Governor Eric Greitens waits to deliver remarks to a small group of supporters near the capitol in Jefferson City, Mo. Greitens' political future seemed doomed by scandal when he resigned as Missouri governor. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

Disgraced former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens made headlines in March when the Republican announced he’s running for the Senate seat left vacant by the retiring Roy Blunt. Missourians were stunned. A one-time golden boy of statewide politics—Navy SEAL, Rhodes Scholar, White House Fellow—Greitens resigned the governorship in 2018 after an affair with his hairdresser, accusations of physical abuse, an indictment for privacy invasion (followed by dismissal of the charges), a damning legislative investigation, and the beginning of impeachment proceedings. The states GOP establishment, including Blunt and the Show Me states other senator, Republican Josh Hawley, shunned the former Democrat.

But Greitenss exile was short-lived. In March, the 47-year-old, now divorced from his wife Sheena Chestnut, announced his 2022 candidacy on Fox News in an interview with Brett Baier. Greitens positioned himself in the broadcast as a complete #MAGA hack. [When] Antifa came to Missouri,” he told Baier, “we stood side-by-side with our police officers and we were able to restore law and order.” Greitens pledged to defend “Trump’s America-first policies” and protect Americans from “Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer’s radical leftist agenda.”

It just might work.  Earlier this month the noted Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein announced a $2.5 million donation to a pro-Greitens PAC. The Greitens rehabilitation has begun.

If theres any funny business going on in the Missouri GOP, Gregg Keller knows about it. A fixture in the state political scene for two decades, Keller is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC every year. He was also coalitions director for Mitt Romney in 2012 and campaign manager in 2006 for then-Senator Jim Talent of Missouri.

When Greitens launched his political career in 2015, Keller was one of the first people he needed to see. They met at a Starbucks in St. Louiss Central West End neighborhood. They didn’t hit it off.

I really became convinced that he was the worst individual Id come across in 20 years of Republican politics,” Keller told me. And felt that way in part because of our personal interactions, in part because I didnt believe he was a Republican, let alone a conservative.”

Greitenss campaign for governor took off anyway. A political neophyte, the strapping former Navy SEAL still had the physique of a warrior. Greitens projected an air of altruism, having started a charity for injured veterans. A Bronze Star and Purple Heart didnt hurt. The prospect that he would be Missouris first Jewish governor was exciting. And Greitens had a top campaign team.

Keller supported on with primary opponent John Brunner. [Greitens] and his team deserved credit,” Keller said. They ran a really, really disciplined, smart campaign to getting the governorship. They had the outsider brand at the right time.”

After Greitens became governor, many thought he was destined for bigger things. With a resumé that read as though it were assembled by a focus group, a run at the White House after Trump left office seemed totally plausible.

He appeared to be a very bright spot in the party, not only statewide but nationally,” said William Hall, a longtime expert of Missouri politics and professor at St. Louiss Webster University. There were conversations, plans in the GOP for his future.”

That talk came to an abrupt halt in January 2018, when Greitens admitted to an extramarital affair with his hairdresser. It quickly got tawdrier. An independent panel of state legislators found that Greitens coerced the woman (whose name was never made public) into performing oral sex; that he physically abused her; and that he told her if she didn’t keep quiet he’d make public some compromising photos of her.

By May it was over. Greitens resigned in the face of impeachment proceedings, pending extortion charges from the St. Louis District Attorneys office (these were later dropped), and a scandal involving campaign financing and donor lists. Before the advent of Donald Trump, that likely would have finished Greitens off. But it’s much harder in GOP politics these days for an ethically compromised candidate to be tainted permanently. As he crisscrosses the state and gives interviews to Newsmax, Greitens is putting that proposition to the test.

Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 in spite of more than 26 credible sexual assault allegations and an Access Hollywood tape in which he boasted of grabbing women “by the pussy.” Since then, his popularity among Republicans has grown, especially among evangelicals. Stephanie Stark, a researcher on sexual assault and harassment in American politics, decided to figure out how this could possibly be so. She left her job working for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (who later became embroiled in his own sexual harassment scandal) and created a study to examine which kinds of voters would be most likely to tolerate candidate allegations of sexual harassment.

Roughly 1,200 surveyed Democrats and Republicans were asked to read the biography of a hypothetical candidate named Jacob Eason, a sexual harasser. Eason, they were told, had three years earlier submitted two of his woman staffers to sexual harassment.  Republicans were told Eason was a Republican. Democrats were told he was a Democrat.

Fifty-seven percent of Republicans said they’d still be willing to vote for Eason, as compared to only 39 percent of Democrats. Stark and her team found no major differences in support for Eason based on gender or age. Whether a voter would tolerate a sexual predator was purely a matter of political affiliation. Conservative people, who obviously tend to vote Republican, when they receive information about something that challenges social order or how they think of social cohesion, they want to reject it,” Stark said.

The notion that Greitens, a God-fearing man with a beautiful family, was unfaithful to his wife and sexually abusive to another woman, rattled Republican voters. But instead of resolving never to support him, they resolved not to believe it or to minimize it. Theyll say Oh, all guys are like that,’ or theyll say A lot of people in power are like that,’ or He might be doing that but Im willing to overlook that’ for what they think is the greater good.”

Mia Costa, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, and her team of students found similar results in 2020 when they looked at voters’ reactions to Me Too” era scandals. Although voters from both parties punished their elected leaders for sexual impropriety, they concluded, the punishment meted out to Democrats were far harsher.

Add to that Republican voters’ continuing loyalty to Trump, and Greitens’ political rehabilitation seems more plausible. If they were to admit, yes this is bad, then they would have to admit, like yeah, Trump was also bad,” Costa said. Its almost like a support for something else, its become a signal.” Missouri hasn’t voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1996.

Lincoln Day, a mid-June gathering in counties across Missouri, is a required stop for any Republican who hopes to win office there. Greitens’ Republican opponents in the Senate race were there: Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, and gun toting lawyer Mark McCloskey, known for his Get-Off-My-Lawn moment during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. But Greitens didn’t show. Instead, he attended the shambolic GOP election audit in Arizona and talked about it on Steve Bannons radio show on the Real Americas Voice network.

Its a notable departure from 2016, when Greitens ran as an outsider—but a rational one. Greitens, who’d only recently flipped parties, was one of the first prominent Republicans in Missouri to call out Trump over the Access Hollywood tape.

That was then. “We are always gonna get attacked by establishment RINOs, were always gonna be attacked by lobbyists, were always gonna be attacked by the insiders,” Greitens told Pete Mundo on KCMO radio.

The Missouri Republican establishment is worried. The state is ruby-red, and keeping Roy Blunt’s seat shouldn’t be a stretch. But a Greitens primary victory might tip the scales.

Keller thinks about this a lot. He estimates that Republicans could win by as many as 15 points if anyone other than Greitens gets the nomination. If the party chooses Greitens, he worries that a Roy Moore-type general election could follow. “Any fair minded person who reads the report from the House Special Investigative Committee… has to conclude that Eric Greitens is a rapist, hes a sexual assaulter, hes a blackmailer, hes a liar, and hes a thief.”

Making enemies within the GOP isn’t new for Greitens, Keller said; he’s been doing it since before he became governor. Senator Josh Hawley hates him, Keller said. It probably doesn’t matter. All that really matters is a coveted Trump endorsement.

That’s why Greitens flew to Arizona. Its why he made Kimberly Guilfoyle, girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., the campaigns national chair. Its why he’s always calling himself a fighter—Trumps favorite word.

I was the only candidate and am the only candidate who’s been willing to go down to the front lines of the Arizona audit,” Greitens said on KCMO in early July. Because when I travel across the state of Missouri, patriots across the state of Missouri, they want to know what really happened in the 2020 election. And frankly, one of the things that they always say to me is we need to have fighters.”

The punchline is that none of this brown-nosing is paying off—not yet, anyway. Politico reported last week that Trump was not ready to endorse Greitens. Even Trump thinks he’s problematic. Aides have said Trump complains openly of Guilfoyles association with Greitens, and that she risks being kicked out of his inner circle for her support.

But consistency has never been Trump’s strong suit. If Greitens keeps at it, he just may win Trump over. Don’t count on the GOP having reached bottom. Don’t count on there even being a bottom.

An earlier version of this story said Gregg Keller backed Greitens in the 2016 Missouri gubernatorial election. He did not. We regret this error.

Gregory Svirnovskiy

Gregory Svirnovskiy, a former Washington Monthly intern, is a journalist based in Evanston, Illinois.