Graphic allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse against the Missouri governor have thrown the Show Me state’s politics into chaos, with major implications for a key U.S. Senate race that could help determine which party controls Congress next year.
Josh Hawley, Missouri’s Republican attorney general, is the frontrunner to unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in November. Widely considered the nation’s most vulnerable Senate Democrat, McCaskill is running for her third term in an increasingly red state that President Donald Trump carried by nearly 19 percentage points in 2016.
On Wednesday night, Hawley issued a scathing response to a bombshell report released earlier that day by a committee of Democratic and Republican state lawmakers.
The report described a woman’s testimony under oath that Gov. Eric Greitens had taped her hands to pull-up rings, spit into her mouth, ripped off her clothes and fondled her before coercing her into oral sex while she sobbed “uncontrollably.” The woman also told lawmakers that Greitens hit her on at least three occasions.
Greitens also is awaiting trial in May on felony invasion of privacy charges related to allegations that he photographed the woman without her consent and transmitted the images. He has admitted an affair with the women but denounced allegations of non-consensual sex acts and violence as lies.
Hawley’s statement, which landed in reporters’ inboxes at 8:43 p.m. eastern time on Wednesday, called on Greitens to “resign immediately” and stated flatly that the conduct described in the report was “certainly impeachable.” He was the first Republican statewide official in Missouri to say Greitens should step down or be impeached.
But McCaskill’s own statement calling for Greitens to resign beat Hawley’s by 11 minutes, a fact she made sure to note to reporters on Thursday.
“As soon as I called for his resignation, I anticipated Hawley would,” McCaskill said.
At 8:32 p.m. on Wednesday, she tweeted: “I have read the official report from the Republican-led Missouri House investigation, including the sworn testimony. It is clearly time to put the interests of the people of Missouri first. The Governor should resign.”
That tweet was followed by a press release from McCaskill four minutes later, then Hawley’s release seven minutes after that.
Thursday morning, McCaskill held court with reporters just outside the U.S. Senate chamber.
A former prosecutor, she was in full prosecutor mode, ticking off what she saw evidence that Hawley has been too soft on Greitens until it was politically expedient for him to turn on him.
Hawley opened an investigation in March into possible violations related to The Mission Continues, a veterans’ charity Greitens founded before running for office. That probe is ongoing, but an onslaught of Democratic ads and operatives — and McCaskill herself — have sought to link Hawley to Greitens or attack him for supposedly going easy on the governor, a member of his own party.
“Listen, there’s one thing that’s very clear: Josh Hawley ran for office saying he was going to clean up public corruption,” she said.
“So far, he whiffed the first opportunity to go after The Mission Continues,” McCaskill continued. “Second, 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.”
Then she launched into her closing argument: “This doesn’t sound like the guy who ran for office saying he was going to clean up public corruption. This sounds like somebody who’s hiding under his desk.”
Hawley’s campaign responded with contempt.
“Claire McCaskill is incredibly petty,” said Gail Gitcho, Hawley’s senior campaign advisor.
“She should be embarrassed by her desperate tirade,” Gitcho said. “This bizarre reaction is a direct response to the new poll numbers showing her in a tight race with General Hawley. Although, her temper tantrum could also be a result of her approval ratings hovering in the 30s. But that’s what happens when you’re in politics for 36 years and are hanging on as tight as you can.”
A Morning Consult poll released on Wednesday shows McCaskill with an approval rating of 39 percent. That makes her the least popular Democratic senator in the country, according to the poll.
A Mason-Dixon poll conducted April 4-6, before news of the report broke, put Hawley and McCaskill in a virtual tie with McCaskill at 45 percent and Hawley at 44, with 11 percent undecided. It showed 47 percent of voters statewide disapproved of the governor’s performance while 41 percent approved.
But Greitens maintained a 63 percent approval rating among Republicans.
That Republican support, if it holds, could hurt Hawley with his base, a possibility not lost on Hawley’s GOP primary opponents.
One of those opponents latched on to McCaskill’s criticism of Hawley on Thursday, accusing the attorney general of a “sudden willingness to throw his friend and colleague under the bus just as his own favorability ratings have plummeted.”
Austin Petersen, a former Libertarian presidential candidate running for the Senate as a Republican, said Hawley’s call for Greitens to resign “reeks of political opportunism.”
That’s because it’s “completely inappropriate that our Attorney General, the chief law enforcement officer of the state, would comment on an active investigation before the accused had even testified,” Petersen said.
Hawley has been careful for weeks to show he’s no friend of Greitens. He’s skipped some events where he might be photographed with the scandal-ridden governor, and his campaign has announced it is no longer appropriate for him to appear at a political event with Greitens while the governor is under investigation by Hawley’s office.
Hawley held a press conference March 23 to announce his office had issued 15 subpoenas as part of his investigation into the governor’s charity. His office had previously held a press call to defend Hawley’s investigation into the governor’s use of Confide, an app that automatically deletes text messages.
That investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, but Hawley has said his task was hampered by the fact that the attorney general’s office has no subpoena power under Missouri’s open records law. He has asked the legislature to provide such power and said if he received it he would re-open the investigation in that case.
Hawley also has offered to provide assistance to St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, a Democrat who is prosecuting Greitens on the invasion of privacy charges. Gardner has jurisdiction in the criminal case but could ask Hawley to take over or assist. She has shown no sign of doing so.