The Washington Post

Trump backs ‘ERIC’ in Senate contest, a name shared by rivals in Missouri

- BY DAVID WEIGEL Josh Dawsey contribute­d to this report.

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 state 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 retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R) made an 11th-hour pitch for the nod in the bitterly contested race.

At his final pre-election rally at a St. Louis-area GOP headquarte­rs, Schmitt told supporters that he’d been “endorsed by President Trump,” and that he’d thanked Trump when he called with the news. On Twitter, before his final rally at an airport near the state’s largest city, Greitens, too, said that he’d thanked Trump over the phone.

The dual endorsemen­t was a small victory for Senate Republican­s, who had worried that Trump would endorse Greitens outright. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National

Republican Senatorial Committee, had lobbied Trump on Monday, urging him not to back Greitens, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private interactio­n.

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 scandalpla­gued 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, 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 Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mcconnell (Ky.) to be replaced as GOP leader, and both were warning that Greitens could put the seat at risk in November.

“Are you going to vote for the former governor who’s abused his wife and his kid, assaulted his child, and quit on Missouri?” said Schmitt 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,” said Schmitt. “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 likely “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.”

Show Me Values PAC, funded with start-up cash from proSchmitt donors Rex and Jeanne Sinquefiel­d and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), worked in recent weeks to try to demolish such impression­s. In some of its 30-second spots, an actress portraying Greitens’s ex-wife read 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-yearold 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 with intense followings, 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 an ad that shows him pretending to hunt members of his own party — 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 some 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 funding 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 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, say strategist­s, 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 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,” Democratic candidate Lucas Kunce, a veteran and anti-monopoly campaigner running for his party’s nomination, said at a Wednesday night town hall in Columbia. If Greitens lost on Tuesday, Kunce hoped 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 antiendors­ement 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 Friday, after a meet-and-greet at a restaurant in Missouri’s conservati­ve Bootheel region.

About 60 voters showed up at the Hickory Log Restaurant, a day after Greitens drew a smaller crowd. While she had called Trump’s remarks on Jan. 6 “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 stop in Columbia, and after dodging questions about Mcconnell, Schmitt indicated that it was time for Mcconnell to go.

 ?? TRISTAN Wheelock/bloomberg NEWS ?? Eric Greitens attends the Conservati­ve Political Action Conference in February. The former Missouri governor is running for Senate.
TRISTAN Wheelock/bloomberg NEWS Eric Greitens attends the Conservati­ve Political Action Conference in February. The former Missouri governor is running for Senate.

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