In Missouri, Governor’s Scandal Ensnares a Republican-Leaning Senate Race
Posted April 12, 2018 6:11 p.m. EDT
Updated April 12, 2018 6:12 p.m. EDT
HANNIBAL, Mo. — Josh Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general, took the stage in this historic Mississippi River town one evening last week, the picture of what the Republican Party wanted for the coming fight to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill this November: young, telegenic and smart.
Six years ago, McCaskill won re-election by intervening in the Republican primary to boost the weakest of her potential Republican opponents, Todd Akin, and then making him the poster boy for his party’s problems with women.
This time, it appeared she would have no such luck. That is, until Hawley and Republicans here were forced to contend with a lurid sex scandal involving the state’s Republican governor. That extramarital relationship has brought accusations of threats of blackmail, a felony indictment and a bipartisan investigation by the state Legislature that produced Wednesday a vivid report of a violent and coercive affair.
Hawley moved quickly to distance himself from the governor, calling the evidence released by a special legislative committee “shocking, substantial and corroborated.” In a statement, he said the report detailed offenses that were “certainly impeachable” and called on the governor, Eric Greitens, to resign immediately.
Greitens hunkered down Thursday but continued to hemorrhage support. Missouri Republicans, including the majority leader of the state Senate and at least one prominent Republican donor, said it was time for him to quit. Three state senators even implored President Donald Trump to intervene, despite the president’s own problems with sexual misconduct accusations.
Meanwhile in court, lawyers for the governor argued that the criminal indictment against him should be thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct.
“The House report contained explosive, hurtful allegations of coercion, violence and assault. They are false,” Greitens said in a statement that maintained a video interview with his accuser contradicts her claims of coercion.
As Greitens dug in, and McCaskill prepared to press her case, it was anything but clear whether Hawley can escape the scandal unscathed, potentially narrowing a race that was once expected to provide Republicans with a relatively easy pickup.
“She is really something,” John C. Danforth, a former Republican senator and an elder statesman of the Missouri Republican Party, said of McCaskill. “She always seems to be able to draw aces.”
The unfurling scandal has put Hawley in an unwelcome bind: He is both investigating the governor for unrelated campaign violations and being attacked by a barrage of Democratic television ads trying to link him with the governor in a cloud of impropriety.
While Missouri has become a solidly Republican state — Trump won here by 19 percentage points — Republicans are facing the potential of both a criminal trial and a messy impeachment fight involving their standard-bearer. Greitens, who has denied the charges, appears determined to fight on, raising fears among party leaders that a prolonged battle could depress Republican turnout and neutralize some of Hawley’s outsider appeal.
And as a backlash against Trump and male misbehavior is expected to push record numbers of women to the polls, McCaskill is practiced in the art of exploiting such moments.
“Right now, Greitens is a slow-moving disaster, and one of the people who can pay a price — is it 4 percent? Two percent? I don’t know — is Josh Hawley,” said Ed Martin, a former chairman of the state Republican Party. It was not supposed to be this way. Having watched furiously in 2012 as McCaskill — thought to be all but certain to lose — waded directly into a crowded Republican primary race to help lift Akin to the nomination, Republicans were intent on giving the senator no such openings.
McCaskill’s campaign weighed in during that race with an advertisement laying out Akin’s conservative credentials, suggesting that Missouri’s “true conservative” was just “too conservative.”
But the ad, in fact, boosted the gaffe-prone Akin with Republican primary voters, exactly what McCaskill wanted.
This time around, Republicans moved quickly and aggressively to clear the field for Hawley, 38, betting that their prize recruit could appeal to both rural voters still pleased with Trump and voters in the suburbs of Kansas City and St. Louis, where the president’s brand has become all but toxic.
Hawley bears an imposing résumé, largely untouched by elected office: Small-town upbringing. Stanford. Yale Law School. A Supreme Court clerkship. And, after a stint as a litigator in Washington, a constitutional law professorship at the University of Missouri and legal work for a conservative religious liberty group.
Breitbart News has written glowingly about his campaign, and so has Danforth, an outspoken critic of Trump who considers Hawley an intellectual force not seen in the state in a long time.
Then came the Greitens affair. McCaskill, aiming at the heart of Hawley’s public profile, has tried to paint him as a laggard and a reluctant investigator, more interested in higher office than following through on campaign promises to clean up Jefferson City, the state capital.
“There is one thing that is very clear: Josh Hawley ran for office saying he was going to clean up public corruption,” McCaskill said Thursday during a brief interview in Washington. “So far, he whiffed.”
She continued: “He absolutely blew an investigation into destruction of records. Third, he’s relied on the legislature to do an investigation into this affair. And fourth, he’s allowed another prosecutor to take the lead in terms of any criminal conduct.”
“This doesn’t sound like the guy who ran for office saying he was going to clean up public corruption,” she concluded. “This sounds like somebody who is hiding under his desk.”
The Senate Majority PAC, which has ties to the Senate Democratic leadership, has already spent well over $1 million on a television spot linking the two young Republicans, both political novices with big résumés and national appeal who campaigned on shaking up Jefferson City.
Democrats have focused particular attention on an earlier investigation by Hawley that concluded Greitens, 44, most likely had not violated any laws in a separate matter related to his staff’s use of a messaging app that erases content after it is sent for state business.
Hawley disputes that he made any mistakes in the earlier investigation and has said he would reopen the investigation if the legislature grants him the subpoena powers he needs to do so. And he said that jurisdiction in the case involving Greitens’ affair rests with the St. Louis circuit attorney, Kimberly M. Gardner.
But Hawley has taken a very different posture toward his current investigation of the governor involving accusations of campaign violations. He has issued a raft of subpoenas, including one to the governor himself. In an interview last week, Hawley said that Democrats were trying to distract from the real issues of the campaign.
Still, he lamented the state of affairs.
“Well, it’s not good for the state — there’s just no getting around that — to have a governor under criminal indictment and under investigation by the attorney general and the House,” he said.
Gail Gitcho, a senior adviser to Hawley, said Thursday that McCaskill’s effort to discredit the attorney general was “incredibly petty.”
“She pedals falsehoods about General Hawley with a gleeful ‘shoot first, aim later’ approach,” she said.
Hawley, who won more votes than anyone else on the ballot here in 2016, is confident that voters will overlook the association in favor of his positions on issues like jobs, wages and immigration. Hawley has avoided making public appearances with Greitens in recent weeks, even skipping some party events. And his decision to call for Greitens to step down is likely to help.
Even with the unexpected boost of the governor’s scandal, Democrats will need voters here to show some of their old independence. Trump won the state by a larger margin than any presidential candidate in decades, but other statewide races in 2016 were closer, including that of the state’s senior Republican senator, Roy Blunt, who eked out another six-year term by less than 3 percentage points. And the situation could be worse for Republicans. The scandal is playing out in April, rather than this fall, when midterm voters will be making up their minds. With political pressure on Greitens intensifying, he could resign quickly and be a distant memory by then.
Since 2016, McCaskill has put a heavy emphasis on rural Missouri, once reliably Democratic country where she grew up and hopes to retain some of her old appeal. Of 50 town-hall-style meetings she held last year, most were scattered around rural Missouri. The point, her allies say, was to show that McCaskill shows up, unafraid to take hard questions from her critics about her record.
Hawley and other Republicans have tried to hammer away at that image. To hear them tell it, McCaskill, who has held one public office or another here since 1983, has long since lost her way. Too liberal. Too rich. Too coastal for Missouri.
In Hannibal, the childhood home of Mark Twain, Hawley made sure to point out that McCaskill was soon bound for another cultural landmark, Hollywood, for a multimillion-dollar fundraiser with Barack Obama and Steven Spielberg. The modest crowd that had gathered in the warehouse of a cement company booed.
For now, Republican strategists here are resigned to Greitens’ effect on the race. A quick resolution would be best for Hawley, said Scott T. Rupp, a member of the state’s public service commission and a former Republican state senator. But whether the governor will knuckle under is anyone’s guess.
“It’s looking at a crystal ball to see how much,” Rupp said.