Politics

The former president’s unusual endorsement added uncertainty to an already tumultuous race.

Missouri Attorney General and Republican Senate candidate Eric Schmitt speaks to supporters at Scott County GOP Headquarters on July 30, 2022 in Sikeston, Missouri. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

By David Weigel, Washington Post

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. – The Republicans competing for the U.S. Senate nomination in Tuesday’s primary here spent their final day of campaigning in a familiar state of suspense – checking their phones for a statement from Donald Trump.

But by day’s end, the former president injected more chaos into an already tumultuous race, simply endorsing “ERIC” – a first name shared by two rival candidates – former governor Eric Greitens and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt – as he suggested he was leaving it to voters to choose between them.

“There is a BIG Election in the Great State of Missouri, and we must send a MAGA Champion and True Warrior to the U.S. Senate, someone who will fight for Border Security, Election Integrity, our Military and Great Veterans, together with having a powerful toughness on Crime and the Border,” Trump wrote in a statement. “I trust the Great People of Missouri, on this one, to make up their own minds, much as they did when they gave me landslide victories in the 2016 and 2020 Elections, and I am therefore proud to announce that ERIC has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

The unusual statement came hours after Trump wrote on Truth Social: “I will be endorsing in the Great State of Missouri Republican race (Nomination) for Senate sometime today!” In recent days, several of the candidates to replace Republican Roy Blunt, who is retiring from the Senate, made an 11th-hour pitch for the nod in the bitterly contested race.

En route to their rallies Monday, both Schmitt and Greitens celebrated Trump’s unorthodox endorsement, with no mention of their rival.

“Honored to have the support of President Trump!” Greitens wrote on Twitter.

Thirty-six minutes later, Schmitt tweeted that he was “grateful for President Trump’s endorsement” as the race’s “only America First candidate.”

The day’s events amounted to a new dose of turmoil in a race that has been filled with it. Greitens, who governed this state for 16 months before he resigned amid personal and political scandals and has more recently faced domestic-violence accusations that he denies, has campaigned as a martyred outsider who wrestled in the same “swamp” as Trump. To stop him, GOP-aligned donors had poured at least $6 million into a super PAC, Show Me Values, with ads that highlight the accusations of abuse and warn that he isn’t fit to represent Missouri.

“We’ve got all the right enemies,” a defiant Greitens told an evening crowd at a house party here last week. “What that tells me is that they recognize that our campaign is a threat to business as usual.”

Ahead of Tuesday, some Republicans here were hopeful that the ads had neutralized Greitens and that a possible endorsement from Trump would seal the race for Schmitt. The campaign for a seat Republicans have held since 1987 has tested whether concerns about electability, and a scandal-plagued candidate dragging down the party, are enough to stop a candidate who taps into conservative grievances and distrust in the media and party establishment.

Schmitt and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., who is backed by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., have attacked Greitens while trying to distance themselves from Republican leaders. By the race’s final weekend, both had called for Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to be replaced as GOP leader, and both were warning that Greitens could put the seat at risk in November.

Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens speaks to reporters in Jefferson City, Mo., Feb. 22, 2022. Greitens is running for election to the U.S. Senate. – AP Photo/David A. Lieb, File

“Are you going to vote for the former governor who’s abused his wife and his kid, assaulted his child and quit on Missouri?” Schmitt said at a rally with supporters in Columbia last week. The attorney general, who has pushed for Trump’s support as he’s risen in limited public polling, was referencing allegations from Greitens’s ex-wife, which the candidate had called a distraction, after separate accusations that forced him from office in 2018 resulted in no charges against him.

“This man is a quitter,” Schmitt said. “And when the going gets tough, he got going.”

Schmitt said after those remarks that he was still seeking Trump’s endorsement, with the former president probably “aware of the separation in the polls this last week.” But Trump, whose endorsements in other states have occasionally saddled the party with weak nominees, remained quiet for most of the race, apart from a statement condemning Hartzler.

That left many Republican voters guessing which candidate shares the values and priorities they appreciated from Trump – or at least, the fighting spirit against an establishment they believe had given up too much ground to liberals.

“Eric Schmitt is the establishment candidate,” said Kym Franklin, a 55-year-old social worker who supports Greitens. Waiting for the former governor to speak at a Saturday rally, at a sports bar where neon marked the “stairway to heaven” and the “highway to hell,” she compared the ex-governor to ex-presidents. “They both got railroaded, and we the people who voted for them got robbed.”

The Show Me Values PAC, funded with start-up cash from pro-Schmitt donors Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield and Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, worked in recent weeks to try to demolish such impressions. In some of its 30-second spots, an actress portraying Greitens’s ex-wife reads from an affidavit that accused him of “abuse,” both against her and against their young son. Greitens has called his ex-wife’s allegations “baseless.” But that has been unconvincing to some Republican primary voters.

“I wish Greitens would drop out,” said Matt Fisher, a 42-year-old loan officer who was leaning toward Schmitt. “He continues to embarrass us. He’s a disgrace to our state.”

Greitens entered the primary in March 2021, claiming to Fox News that he’d been “completely exonerated.” An investigation found no wrongdoing on a campaign finance charge, and a felony charge against him alleging invasion of privacy against a woman, his former hairdresser, whom he admitted to having an affair with, was dropped by prosecutors.

The former governor has won some endorsements from Trump allies, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Greitens has portrayed himself as a foe of RINOs, which stands for “Republicans in name only.” He had faced criticism for releasing a campaign ad that shows him pretending to hunt down members of his own party with guns – a message his campaign monetized with “RINO hunting permits” to place on vehicle windows.

“We have to recognize we are in a fight against evil,” Greitens said at his Saturday rally in St. Charles County, where he condemned Republicans who he said had defied Trump’s effort to finish a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Blunt, whose retirement plans kicked off this primary, was one of the Republicans who disapproved of Trump’s decision to shuffle around defense funds to pay for the wall. And in March, after the release of an affidavit from Sheena Greitens accusing her ex-husband of abuse, Blunt had called on Eric Greitens to quit the race.

Public and private polling, which has a spotty record in Missouri, found that the affidavit hurt Greitens. The ad campaign focused on the new charges, strategists say, helped Schmitt and Hartzler push ahead. And support for Team PAC, which had given Greitens air cover before the affidavit from his ex-wife, had dried up. In the closing stages of the race, some Greitens backers have waged smaller-scale efforts to help him prevail.

Blake Johnson, a 45-year old contractor, installed a fridge-size Greitens sign on the bed of his Ford F-350. Driving through St. Charles County, a Republican stronghold outside St. Louis, he’d tracked the support he saw for the ex-governor. “I had three people flip me off today, but they were all driving Priuses, so you assume they leaned left,” he said on Saturday. “I had 21 people give me a thumbs up.”

In late June, former U.S attorney John Wood launched an independent Senate bid and called Greitens a “danger to our democracy,” convincing some Republicans that Greitens might lose a November election that anyone else in his party should win.

“It seems like Greitens might be dead now,” said Democratic candidate Lucas Kunce, a veteran and anti-monopoly campaigner running for his party’s nomination, at a town hall Wednesday night in Columbia. If Greitens loses on Tuesday, Kunce hopes that Wood and the GOP nominee might tumble into “a little civil war – the country club Republicans versus the Trump side.”

Other candidates in the crowded field have also pursued Trump’s backing and run in his mold. Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., has run a shoestring campaign while urging Trump to endorse him. Mark McCloskey, an attorney who became a Trump 2020 surrogate after pointing a rifle at Black Lives Matter protesters marching through his St. Louis neighborhood, is also in the race.

Hartzler and Schmitt have different conservative bona fides and different strategies for winning. Earlier this year, Hartzler, the farmer-turned-legislator, was censored by Twitter – a badge of honor in GOP primaries – for an ad singling out transgender female athletes.

“Women’s sports are for women,” Hartzler said in the ad, which focused on University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, “not men pretending to be women.”

But on July 8, shortly after the Missouri Farm Bureau endorsed Hartzler, Trump posted an anti-endorsement of the candidate on his Truth Social website. “I don’t think she has what it takes to take on the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump wrote.

“Maybe he’s listened to some lies from my opponents,” Hartzler speculated in an interview on Friday, after a meet-and-greet at a restaurant in Missouri’s conservative Bootheel region.

About 60 voters showed up to eat ribs and talk policy at the Hickory Log Restaurant, a day after Greitens drew a smaller crowd. While she had called Trump’s remarks on Jan. 6, 2021, “unpresidential,” voters, she said, knew she supported his policy agenda.

“It’s caused my supporters to be even more energized,” Hartzler said of the Trump statement. “They have overwhelmingly said: ‘Clearly, he doesn’t know you. We know you, and we want to fight even harder for you.’”

As the primary drew closer, Schmitt had checked more of Trump’s boxes. After a Wednesday stop at a restaurant in Columbia, and after dodging questions about whether McConnell, whom Trump has criticized, should remain the GOP’s leader in the Senate, Schmitt took the same position as Trump, Greitens, Hartzler and McCloskey. It was time for McConnell to go.

“Mitch McConnell hasn’t endorsed me, and I don’t endorse him,” Schmitt told reporters after a stop at a restaurant in Columbia. The Senate needed “new leadership,” he added, and the GOP had “changed pretty dramatically” since McConnell, now 80, got to the Senate.