Talking Points

Can a sex scandal in Missouri cost the GOP the U.S. Senate?

The GOP has a Trump-shaped problem in Missouri — and it could cost the party a majority in the U.S. Senate.

Eric Greitens, the former Missouri governor, is leading his rivals for the Republican nomination for his state's open Senate seat. But he has a terribly sordid history, having resigned from office in 2018 amid allegations he'd had a coercive extramarital affair — and then blackmailed the woman with nude photos. Greitens claimed the affair was consensual, and criminal charges against him were dropped. The whole thing left a nasty impression with voters, though. A new Republican Party poll indicates he could well lose to the Democratic nominee in next fall's general election. That would be a stunning result in a solidly red state.

Party leaders have gone into panic mode. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) endorsed one of Greitens' GOP rivals this week; Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) offered an out-of-state endorsement for another candidate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is reportedly watching the situation warily. Former President Trump remains on the sidelines, reportedly mulling over his options.

One problem: Trump hasn't ruled out Greitens. The former president wants to back a winner, and Greitens' popularity among Missouri Republicans makes him a tempting gamble. "Trump has seen Greitens' internal poll numbers and asked those close to him if he should just endorse him and take the victory," Politico reports today. 

Some conservatives dread that possibility. "Please don't endorse Eric Greitens. That's a nightmare, Mr. President. We'll lose that seat," radio host Hugh Hewitt moaned on-air in December. 

The bigger problem for Republicans is how fervidly they've embraced Trump since 2016 — even after the Access Hollywood video, even after Trump endorsed Alabama's Roy Moore amid allegations Moore had pursued relationships with teen girls, and even after Trump backed several other Republican men accused of treating women terribly. Through his personal behavior and political choices, Trump has created a Greitens-sized hole in the Republicans' political tent by making it seem that that misogyny and sexual predation are no big deal. By making fealty to Trump the sine non qua of GOP identity, the party's leaders have done the same. Having trained their followers to disregard such follies, Republicans are now hard pressed to make the case to their voters that nominating Greitens is a bad idea. As long as he toes the MAGA line, what's really the problem? 

Democrats have had their own sins in this regard — famously leaping to President Bill Clinton's defense when his affair with a young intern came to light. It was wrong, then, too. If you want to make the case that Clinton opened the gates to acceptance of Trump's behavior, I won't argue. But the issue for the GOP now is that while their voters don't mind putting gross men in office, the electorate at large still has reservations. If Missouri elects a Democrat in November, Republicans will have earned the rebuke.