Five days ago, a Missouri state House committee released a troubling report detailing allegations made by a woman that the state’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, had subjected her to non-consensual sex and violence.
It was widely seen as a death knell for the governor’s political career. A number of prominent Republican politicians – including state Attorney General Josh Hawley, the party’s likely 2018 Senate nominee – called for Greitens to step down. And yet, he remains in office – fiercely insisting that the accusations of sexual and mental abuse are false.
On Tuesday afternoon, Greitens’ outlook darkened even more with the announcement by Hawley that the governor could be charged with a felony for illegally obtaining a fundraising list from a non-profit group he started.
In search of an explanation for how Greitens is still the Show Me State governor, I reached out to St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Last week, the GOP controlled legislature issued a stinging report on the governor’s personal conduct. I assumed he would resign. He didn’t. What gives?
Rosenbaum: If you go by Greitens’ own statement before that report came out, he’s not resigning because he feels that report is full of “lies” and a “witch hunt” propelled from his political adversaries.
As mentioned many times, Greitens won election as governor without a strong contingent of Missouri elected officials endorsing his candidacy. I can’t read his mind, but I would assume that he feels that he doesn’t have any personal or political connections to the people calling for him to step down – and therefore doesn’t take their demands very seriously.
The problem with that mentality is that House Republicans were in charge of putting together that report. In fact, the chairman of the committee that wrote it, Rep. Jay Barnes, was an early Greitens supporter. So even if he’s able to remain in office, these latest developments showcase that his support among a legislative bloc that was willing to work with him has evaporated.
Cillizza: The vast majority of prominent Republicans in the state have called on Greitens to resign. Why isn’t he bowing to his party’s demands?
Rosenbaum: It goes back to how he was elected governor. Most people that end up ascending to that office here get there by making relationships over years with party activists, elected officials and Missouri-based donors. Greitens didn’t do that. Much of his political and campaign finance network comes from outside Missouri, such as his 2016 political consultant (and now Mike Pence chief of staff) Nick Ayers.
Since Greitens doesn’t feel like he owes some of the more seasoned GOP officials anything, he’s less likely to follow their lead. But it’s gone beyond just ignoring demands. Greitens has gone out of his way to attack GOP state legislators – and even GOP US Sen. Roy Blunt. That type of behavior isn’t forgotten. And since Greitens’ potential replacement, Mike Parson, is a Republican, people in his party have no problem throwing him overboard.
Cillizza: How concerned are Republicans that Greitens could impair their chances of beating Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) this fall or of winning the governorship again in 2020?
Rosenbaum: The biggest impact on whether McCaskill wins or loses is still the national environment. If President Donald Trump’s approval ratings sink considerably in Missouri by the time November rolls around, then that may be enough for McCaskill to piece together an urban, suburban and rural coalition needed to win.
If Greitens leaves office well before November, he may end up being a small factor in that election. But Republicans are clearly worried about the political impact of this scandal if Greitens doesn’t resign. I talked with Gregg Keller yesterday, a political consultant who supported another Republican candidate in 2016. He said in state Senate races “where we’re supposed to be ahead, we’re tied. In races where we’re supposed to be tied, we’re behind.”
I will just add, though, that many Missouri legislators from both political parties aren’t seeing this situation through a political lens. They feel that the graphic allegations of sexual and physical abuse in the report (which Greitens, again, has strongly denied) are so shocking, that they feel the very perception of the governorship and the state are on the line here. “It is extremely heinous what came out in that report,” said Democratic Sen. Gina Walsh. “And I have no faith in that man.”
Cillizza: How much of this scandal is inside baseball? Or is this a story that the average Missourian is a) following and b) has a strong opinion on?
Rosenbaum: I don’t believe that this scandal is inside baseball. What Greitens is accused of doing strikes at some visceral emotions, both among Missourians and elected officials. I saw legislators last week in tears and genuinely angry. It goes beyond the typical, partisan reaction to a political crisis.
And moreover, Greitens’ political woes aren’t going away. Just as I was typing my answers to you, Attorney General Josh Hawley said there was evidence that existed to charge Grietens with a felony for illegally obtaining a fundraising list from a charity he founded. That could give lawmakers even more ammunition that they can use to impeach Greitens if he doesn’t end up resigning. And ultimately, that drumbeat of negative attention is going to affect how ordinary Missourians feel about Greitens – if it hasn’t already.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “By June 1, Eric Greitens is _____________. ” Now, explain.
Rosenbaum: “By June 1, Eric Greitens is in the process of being impeached by a legislature that his party controls.”