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Greitens’s violent ad sets off GOP scramble to stop his Senate bid

State and national Republicans are feverishly shopping super PACs, planning an independent candidate and lobbying Trump, hoping to sink the scandal-ridden ex-governor’s comeback

GOP officials and donors are scrambling to battle the Senate bid of former Missouri governor Eric Greitens after he released a violent ad depicting him hunting members of his own party. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
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Republican operatives and donors in Washington and Missouri are privately working to undercut the Senate campaign of Eric Greitens, the ex-governor who resigned in disgrace four years ago, after he released an ad that graphically dramatized hunting down members of his own party.

But the opposition is split among factions backing different rivals in the Aug. 2 primary and over disagreements on who should attack Greitens or how, according to people involved in the discussions. They, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Others are preparing to pour millions instead into an independent bid by John F. Wood, a senior investigative counsel on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. And some are concerned that intervening in the race could play into Greitens’s hands by feeding his anti-establishment posturing — or even prompting former president Donald Trump to endorse him.

Two people familiar with Trump’s reaction to the Greitens ad said the president expressed that he did not appreciate the content and believed it went too far. But Trump has not commented on the ad publicly, and he sometimes tells different advisers different things, depending on the context of the conversation.

Some Trump advisers have also been imploring him not to endorse Greitens, which could be decisive in the right-drifting state. Among those privately appalled by the ad is Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, who has lobbied Trump against making any endorsement in the Missouri Senate race and made a round of calls to allies and advisers this week to express her displeasure with the video.

With the election six weeks away, some Republicans are panicking that a Greitens primary victory could hurt the party’s footing in a must-win state to take back control of the Senate.

“People have been aware that Eric Greitens was an electability hazard for quite some time,” said John Hancock, a former state party chairman who advised the campaign of Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a primary opponent of Greitens’s. “I’m troubled personally that he is the one candidate in this race that could cost the GOP this seat.”

Yet none of the Republican leadership had much desire to say anything publicly on Wednesday. RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn said “threats of violence have no place in our politics” but also did not specifically condemn Greitens, saying Democrats should have expressed more concern about the recent threat to Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, declined to comment through a spokesman. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said only that Republican voters should “take a look” at the ad. Trump, through a spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment.

Several people close to Senate leadership said they feared attacking Greitens for the ad would only help him, even as they groused about the notion he could be the nominee. McConnell has told allies he does not have any plans to try to defeat Greitens.

“If someone is going to stop Eric Greitens, that effort is going to have to be soon,” said James Harris, a Republican consultant in Missouri not working on the Senate contest. “I think Eric Greitens is very hard to stop unless President Trump endorses one of the other candidates. And whoever he endorses will win.”

People close to the former president said advisers have argued that endorsing Greitens, who has been accused by his ex-wife of domestic violence, would rekindle news coverage of Trump’s own multiple allegations of sexual assault. Greitens and Trump have both denied those accusations.

“If you’re thinking about running again, why own this guy’s baggage?” one Trump confidant said, summing up an argument that senators, allies and other donors are making to him.

For his part, Greitens has courted Trump’s support by styling himself as a MAGA warrior, naming as his campaign chair Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is engaged to the former president’s namesake son, and frequently appearing on the popular podcast of former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon. Greitens has also employed Boris Epshteyn, a former White House aide who is a regular confidant of Trump’s, per multiple advisers to the former president.

Republican strategists are especially sensitive to any appearance that the attacks are traceable to McConnell, who is at odds with Trump and unpopular with his supporters.

“The discussion: it needs to get done — now who’s going to do it?” said one person involved in the discussions about how to attack Greitens. “If it’s McConnell coming in, it’s almost like you are inviting Trump to come in and endorse Greitens, which no one wants to see happen.”

Some of the party’s top donors have discussed how to knock off Greitens, according to a Republican operative with direct knowledge of the discussions.

There are about a dozen major Republican donors who are interested in Eric Greitens not being the nominee. There have been significant discussions about how they go about doing it. There is no lack of donor interest, but it’s a matter of what the right entity is,” this operative said.

On Thursday, a new super PAC called Show Me Values entered the fray, as first reported by Politico. The group plans to air more than $1 million in TV ads against Greitens in the next week, according to a person involved in the group. It’s being funded by donors including Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield, who are past supporters of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and run by Johnny DeStefano, a former official in Trump’s White House.

Republicans are testing out which line of attack against Greitens could be the most damaging. The messages included his personal controversies, such as an extramarital affair and allegations that he attempted to blackmail the woman with whom he had a relationship, as well as his attendance at the 2008 Democratic National Convention when Barack Obama was nominated. Two people who saw the results said the personal attacks moved voters away from Greitens, but not as much as highlighting his Democratic National Convention trip.

Greitens has largely skated by without any attack ads so far, with just under $74,000 spent by a super PAC aligned with state Attorney General Eric Schmitt (R), who is also running in the primary, according to Federal Election Commission data. Total spending on the race has lagged other competitive Senate primaries, according to data from Medium Buying, a company that places and tracks political ads. In Missouri, campaigning for the Aug. 2 primary typically intensifies after the Fourth of July holiday.

Public and private polls have showed Greitens with a slight lead in the crowded field. In addition to Schmitt and Hartzler, he faces Rep. Billy Long and St. Louis lawyer Mark McCloskey, who made headlines in 2020 for wielding an assault rifle at passing protesters. Harris estimated that the race is fractured enough that the winning candidate could have as little as 28 percent of the vote, a number that Greitens has achieved in recent polls. There is no minimum or runoff.

Groups associated with Schmitt have focused their negative advertising on Hartzler, while Hartzler’s supporters have been aiming at Schmitt. Schmitt has the backing of Americans for Prosperity and the Senate Conservatives Fund. Greitens has received air support from super PACs funded by Republican megadonors Richard Uihlein and Bernie Marcus, FEC disclosures show. Uihlein contributed $2.5 million to a group that has aired ads against Schmitt and Hartzler, and Marcus gave $1 million to an outfit that has backed Greitens.

Greitens’s campaign itself, though, has struggled to raise money. The campaign did not pay to promote the violent ad, which advocated hunting “RINOs” — an acronym for the derisive phrase “Republicans in name only” — according to a person familiar with the strategy, as well as disclosures from Facebook and the Federal Communications Commission.

In the 24 hours after the ad posted, the Greitens campaign reported more than 400 new small-dollar donors, a high point for the campaign so far this cycle. Supporters are encouraged to give $25 to the campaign to receive a sticker that says they have a “RINO Hunting Permit.” In a talk radio interview, Greitens said that ad was meant “with a sense of humor and with a sense of fun.”

“We are glad Gov. Greitens clarified that his ad was tongue in cheek,” said Vaughn, the RNC aide, in an email.

With no hope of consolidating the primary field, some Republicans are looking past it to mount a challenge to Greitens with an independent bid. Wood is preparing to leave the House Jan. 6 committee and exploring an independent run in Missouri.

His campaign committee, which has not yet formally filed, launched a website and started raising money on Monday in response to the violent Greitens ad, consultant Steve Crim said. Wood would need to gather 10,000 signatures by Aug. 1 to get on the ballot as an independent.

“John’s a Republican, will always be a Republican,” Crim said. “But in this scenario, with the extreme elements of the party controlling the Republican nominee, I think this was the best route to go.”

If Wood decides to run, he would have the support of former senator John Danforth (R-Mo.), who is raising money for a super PAC to back an independent bid. Danforth’s group commissioned a survey of Missouri voters in February that found widespread disgust at political polarization and interest in a unifying centrist.

“It was off the charts that people feel that politics now is broken and it’s damaging the country,” Danforth said. “I’m not interested in wading into the Republican primary, and I’m not interested in being a spoiler for anybody. This will be a campaign to win an election.”

Danforth called Wood “the real deal” and said he has commitments for $9 million and aims to raise $20 million, which would be in line with spending on the most expensive Senate primaries this cycle.

The independent bid would proceed regardless of who wins the Republican nomination, Crim said. Danforth acknowledged that having Greitens in the race would probably help with fundraising for an independent challenge, but he viewed all the Republican candidates as problematic, citing Schmitt’s filing a brief supporting throwing out the 2020 election results and Hartzler’s mailer depicting her with an assault rifle.

“I don’t honestly see that much difference between the Republican contenders,” Danforth said. “It is a field that is pretty much the same, I think, except for the personal problems of Greitens.”

Other prominent Republicans feared that an independent candidacy could help the Democrats.

“That would be a mistake, because in the end what’s going to be important for determining policy for the next two years is who has the majority,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, a major spender on Republican primaries that hasn’t taken sides in the Missouri Senate race. Asked whether his group would support Greitens as the nominee, McIntosh said, “Definitely.”

The Greitens campaign welcomed Wood’s entry, acknowledging how a divided opposition could be Greitens’s best hope to win.

“We whole-heartedly encourage any independent candidates to get into this race, especially those who are part of the sham January 6th committee,” Steven Cheung, a former Trump White House adviser working for Greitens’s campaign, said in a statement. “We cannot stress enough the more candidates that get into the race, the better. Missouri is a solid Trump state and Governor Greitens will win decisively.”

Despite the widespread criticism of Greitens’s ad, party leaders have resisted calls to formally punish him, even as Greitens markets his “hunting permit” stickers on WinRed, a digital fundraising platform that operates in partnership with the Republican National Committee.

“It’s completely unacceptable, repulsive and I hope the voters of Missouri reject this guy. What a clown,” Henry Barbour, a Republican national committeeman from Mississippi, said of the Greitens’s hunting ad. Barbour also opposed an effort earlier this year to have the Republican National Committee expel Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) for their work with Democrats to investigate Jan. 6.

He added, “It really ought to disqualify the guy from public service when you start taking about killing people — and he can act like he is winking.”

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