Ex-Navy SEAL Coasts to GOP Primary Win in Missouri Governor's Race

by | August 3, 2016

By Kevin McDermott

Eric Greitens, the Maryland Heights native who turned his service with the elite Navy SEALs into a national brand and, then, into his debut political campaign, emerged from a bruising four-way primary Tuesday as Missouri's Republican nominee for governor.

Meanwhile, state Attorney General Chris Koster easily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary over three minor candidates, as expected.

The results mean that, on Nov. 8, the state's gubernatorial race will be between Koster, a former Republican turned Democrat, and Greitens, a former Democrat turned Republican.

"Are you ready to take back our state?" a jubilant Greitens shouted to supporters in a Chesterfield rally after the results made it clear he had won. "We're ready to rock!"

Greitens -- who as recently as 2010 was being wooed to run for office by the Democratic party -- vowed to lead "a conservative revolution" and "take our state back" after eight years under a Democratic governor.

Drawing on one of the aggressive activities highlighted in his attention-grabbing campaign ads, Greitens honored his primary opponents with a boxing metaphor: "I say to all of you, congratulations on a hard fight. You left it all in the ring."

In what may stand as a sign of the elective times, Greitens, who has never before run for public office, handily beat three more experienced politicos: Frontenac businessman John Brunner, who unsuccessfully sought the state's 2012 GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate; former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway of Ladue; and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder of Cape Girardeau.

Greitens, 42, of St. Louis, won in most areas across the state, with a final lead over second-place-finisher Brunner of about 10 percentage points.

Polls in the days before the race indicated a virtual four-way tie but also a large portion of voters undecided, indicating that late-deciders broke heavily Greitens' way.

Greitens' nomination caps one of the most contentious primary fights in Missouri elective history, and the most expensive, with some $22 million in combined spending by the four candidates.

Greitens late Tuesday boasted of having won the primary through a "grass-roots movement." In fact, the roughly $8 million that he spent to win -- more than any of his three opponents -- was contributed primarily by wealthy mega-donors from outside Missouri, a factor that became a campaign issue in the race.

In the end, the GOP primary election may be remembered more for Greitens' military-themed television ads than for any substantive policy difference between the candidates. In addition to a commercial showing him boxing, there was one in which he fires a semi-automatic rifle across a field to spark an explosion.

The race began in early 2015 as a contest between Hanaway and state Auditor Tom Schweich. But Schweich committed suicide in February 2015, after complaining bitterly about tactics of fellow Republicans against him. This included a radio advertisement that mocked Schweich's modest physical stature.

The ad was later tied to well-known Kansas City political operative Jeff Roe, who had worked with Hanaway's campaign. Though Hanaway disavowed any involvement in the ad, Schweich's death spurred in-party opposition to her and ultimately drew in the crowded four-way field.

Hanaway finished at the bottom among the four candidates in Tuesday's voting, according to unofficial returns.

"I'm very glad I did this," Hanaway told supporters in a tearful concession speech in Brentwood late Tuesday. "I set a little example for young women to go out and take a chance."

Brunner, a former CEO, spent more than $6 million of his own money in the race. During his failed 2012 U.S. Senate primary, Brunner spent about $8 million of his own money.

"There are more races, more battles, more fights ahead," Brunner told supporters late Tuesday.

When Kinder finishes his third term as lieutenant governor in January, he will be out of public office for the first time in 24 years. He was first elected to the state Senate in 1992.

"It was not to be tonight," Kinder told supporters in Cape Girardeau. "Things are never as rosy as they seem when you win, and they're never as dark when you come up short."

Under Missouri's unusual campaign finance system, which imposes no limits, Greitens has been funded overwhelmingly by high-money donors across the country. It was a base spurred in part by his founding of "The Mission Continues," a national organization that arranges community service projects by military veterans; and by several bestselling self-help books he has written.

Greitens had to fend off attacks from his fellow Republicans over his acceptance of $1 million in donations from Michael Goguen, a California venture capitalist who has been accused in a high-profile lawsuit of sexually abusing a female acquaintance for years.

In the final days of the campaign, a federal PAC funded by national Democrats jumped into the fray with radio commercials against Greitens, indicating he was the Republican the opposing party least wanted to face in November.

The long, raucous race took its toll on Greitens' once-dominant finances. He goes into the general election with under $1 million left, according to the latest campaign finance records.

By contrast, Koster, who ran virtually no primary campaign at all against three little-known competitors, was sitting on more than $10 million as of late July, records show.

Even as Missourians watched primary election returns late Tuesday, Koster's first television commercials of the campaign were being broadcast.

Koster, 51, is completing his second term as attorney general. He was a Republican until he switched parties in 2007, citing his differences with the GOP over its opposition to stem-cell research and his support of labor issues.

In Tuesday's Democratic primary, Koster easily vanquished Leonard Joseph Steinman II of Jefferson City; former Kansas City Mayor Charles B. Wheeler, who served in the 1970s and is 89; and Eric Morrison, a bishop for Kingdom Word Ministry in Kansas City.

"In this room, we don't tear down collective bargaining, we always, always defend it," Koster told supporters late Tuesday. "In this room, we don't discriminate against gay people, we fight against it."

Outgoing Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon was prevented by term limits from seeking a third term.

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