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Republicans Fear Flawed Candidates Could Imperil Key Senate Seats
March 24, 2021
The entry of two hard-right candidates this week into Senate races in Missouri and Alabama exposed the perils for Republicans of a political landscape in which former President Donald J. Trump is the only true north for grass-roots voters.
Strong state parties, big donors and G.O.P. national leaders were once able to anoint a candidate, in order to avoid destructive demolition derbies in state primaries.
But in the Trump era, the pursuit of his endorsement is all-consuming, and absent Mr. Trump’s blessing, there is no mechanism for clearing a cluttered primary field. With the former president focused elsewhere — on settling scores against Republicans who advanced his impeachment or showed insufficient loyalty — a combative Senate primary season is in store for the 2022 midterms, when Republicans who hope to regain the majority face a difficult map. They are fighting to hold on to five open seats after a wave of retirements of establishment figures, and even deep-red Missouri and Alabama pose potential headaches.
A scandal-haunted former Missouri governor, Eric Greitens, entered the race on Monday to replace the retiring Senator Roy Blunt. His candidacy set off a four-alarm fire with state party leaders, who fear that Mr. Greitens may squeak through a crowded primary field, only to lose a winnable seat to a Democrat.
In Alabama, the entry of Representative Mo Brooks, a staunch but lackluster Trump supporter, into the race for the seat being vacated by Senator Richard C. Shelby raised a different set of fears with activists: that Mr. Brooks, who badly lost a previous statewide race, would cause waves of Republican voters, especially women, to sit out the off-year election and crack open the door in a ruby red state for a Democrat.
Both candidacies are likely to pose challenges for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who has weighed in to cull potentially flawed candidates in the past and has said he may do so again this time. Last year, a super PAC aligned with Mr. McConnell intervened in a Senate primary in Kansas against Kris Kobach, a polarizing figure whose candidacy threatened the loss of a seat that was ultimately won by the G.O.P. establishment’s favorite, Roger Marshall.
Mr. Trump has so far stayed out of the potential pileups to fill the open Senate seats — the others to date are in Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Alabama and Missouri, both Republican strongholds, afford the G.O.P. a margin of error even with a flawed candidate, a cushion not available in the more competitive traditional battleground states.
In announcing his candidacy on Fox News on Monday, Mr. Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, sought to appeal to Mr. Trump and Trump voters, boasting of having routed “antifa” from Missouri as governor and pledging to be a “fighter” who would be committed to “defending President Trump’s America First policies.”
Mr. Greitens, who took office in 2017, resigned the next year amid accusations of physical and sexual abuse by a woman he had been involved with in an extramarital affair before his election. Still, he remains popular with a core of Republican voters. Many Republican officials fear that in a multicandidate primary, which appears likely, he could win with around 30 percent of the vote.
“There is a high level of concern,” said Gregg Keller, a Republican strategist in Missouri, where Democrats have been shut out of major statewide victories for nearly a decade.
Mr. Keller, who is unaligned in the race, said nominating Mr. Greitens would be “the only way Republicans stand a chance of losing this seat.” He added, “It would be an incredible self-own and would put the seat in play.”
On Wednesday, a second candidate entered the race, Attorney General Eric Schmitt of Missouri, who had joined a Texas-led lawsuit by attorneys general to overturn the 2020 election results, which was rejected by the Supreme Court. At least three other Republicans have shown interest in the race, including Representative Ann Wagner, a moderate from the St. Louis suburbs.
Mr. Greitens claimed while announcing his candidacy that he had been “completely exonerated” in the scandals that led to his resignation. But he elided important details. Accused by a hair stylist of binding her hands, spanking her, taking seminude pictures and threatening to release them if she disclosed their affair, Mr. Greitens was charged with felony invasion of privacy. The case fell apart, but the Republican-led Legislature moved to impeach Mr. Greitens anyway. An explosive investigation by the Missouri House concluded that the woman’s accusations were credible.
Separately, the attorney general at the time, Josh Hawley, now the state’s junior senator, turned up evidence that led to a felony count against Mr. Greitens related to political fund-raising, which Mr. Hawley described as “serious charges.”
Mr. Greitens, 46, stepped down in May 2018 after reaching a deal with prosecutors that led to the campaign finance charge being dropped. A state ethics commission later found he had not engaged in wrongdoing in the finance case.
“His claim to have been totally exonerated is a fraud and misrepresentation of the facts,’’ said Peter Kinder, a former Republican lieutenant governor. “An overwhelmingly Republican Legislature was prepared to impeach him and was within days of doing that.’’
Mr. Greitens has both grass-roots supporters and high-profile enemies in the Missouri G.O.P., including Mr. Kinder, who lost to him in a 2016 primary for governor, and Mr. Hawley.
After Mr. Blount this month announced his plans to retire, Mr. Trump called Mr. Hawley to ask about whom he should support, according to a person familiar with the conversation. They agreed to stay in touch as the field develops, and Mr. Hawley could be expected to steer Mr. Trump away from the former governor.
In an argumentative interview on Wednesday with the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Mr. Greitens said the Missouri House’s 24-page report about him had been “discredited,’’ but he would not say how. He claimed, without evidence, that his accuser, two of her friends and her former husband, all of whom testified under oath, were “lying.’’
“Why did you quit?’’ Mr. Hewitt asked Mr. Greitens, referring to his resignation. “SEALs don’t quit.”
In Alabama, the fear of some Republicans about a lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Brooks, the most high-profile candidate in an emerging field, traces to the lacerating sting of 2017, when the Democrat Doug Jones won a Senate seat after G.O.P. voters failed to show up to support the party’s nominee, the scandal-plagued Roy Moore.
Mr. Brooks, a six-term congressman from northern Alabama, was one of the first Republicans to announce that he would object to the Electoral College certifying President Biden’s victory. He faced calls for censure from Democrats after an incendiary speech he made at the pro-Trump rally on Jan. 6 before the riot at the Capitol. In announcing his candidacy on Monday, he aired once again his and Mr. Trump’s false accounts of the election. “In 2020, we had the worst voter fraud and election theft in history,” he said. Few individual cases and no evidence of widespread fraud have been confirmed.
But in Alabama, Mr. Trump’s fraud narrative is hardly a controversial view among Republican voters. Both Mr. Brooks, 66, and the only other announced candidate to date, Lynda Blanchard — a major G.O.P. donor who was ambassador to Melania Trump’s native Slovenia — have aggressively sought Mr. Trump’s endorsement. But it is entirely possible he will withhold one in the interest of not alienating potential future allies, political observers say.
The bigger danger with Mr. Brooks, in the view of some party strategists, is that he simply fails to excite Republican voters in an off-year election. He finished an unimpressive third in a 2017 primary to fill an open Senate seat, winning fewer than one in five Republican votes.
“The danger becomes that there will be nothing to motivate Republicans to go to the polls,” said Angi Horn, a Republican strategist in Alabama, “which would put us at the peril that we have been in in the past, when a large majority of Republican voters did not see a candidate that motivated and inspired them to go vote.”