Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley says he has not seen Gov. Eric Greitens in person since his fellow Republican delivered his State of the State address in January — hours before Greitens was engulfed in scandal.
Even if he hasn’t seen Greitens face to face, Hawley, the state’s top law enforcement official, has been unable to avoid getting entangled in the governor’s legal and political woes as Hawley mounts a campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in a race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.
Hawley’s office said in January that it lacked jurisdiction to investigate allegations of sexual blackmail against the governor, but the probe his office conducted into the governor’s charity, The Mission Continues, may prove even more significant as Missouri lawmakers weigh whether to impeach the governor.
“I was elected with more votes than anybody else in the state to be a prosecutor for the state of Missouri. … The political fallout, implications, I leave to other people,” Hawley said Friday.
It has made Hawley, the top GOP recruit for the Senate race, a target of the governor’s wrath.
“Fortunately for Josh, he’s better at press conferences than the law. Anyone who has set foot in a Missouri courtroom knows these allegations are ridiculous,” Greitens said in a statement after Hawley announced that he had uncovered evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing by the governor.
Republicans across the state have watched the tension between two of the state’s top Republicans with concern.
“The golden rule is ‘Don’t dump on another Republican,’ but they’re not going to (follow that rule),” said Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington.
“It’s going to be vicious,” Engler said. “The governor is going to do everything he can to save himself. And I’m sure the attorney general’s doing everything he can to distance himself from the governor. … Hopefully, they won’t do any permanent damage to the party.”
Greitens' office did not comment Friday about the tension with the attorney general.
Gregg Keller, a national Republican consultant based in St. Louis, said Greitens’ attacks on Hawley’s legal competence should outrage Republicans.
“He should at a very minimum not attack the attorney general, not attack the man who is going to decide control of the U.S. Senate for the president’s agenda,” Keller said. “Not only is he attacking that person, but he’s attacking that person knowingly with lies and falsehoods and he’s doing it exclusively for his own selfish political survival.”
Greitens and his team also have attacked the GOP lawmakers conducting the legislative investigation into the governor. The prolonged standoff between the governor and the Republican-controlled legislature will have an effect down the ballot, said Keller, who worked for John Brunner, a GOP rival of Greitens'
“He doesn’t care about the Republican Party. ... It’s all a lie. It’s all a façade,” Keller said, noting Greitens’ past as a Democrat. “He’s absolutely willing to burn it all down … not just control of the U.S. Senate, but endangering our supermajorities in the Missouri House and Senate that many of us worked decades and the better parts of professional lives to create.”
Greitens’ campaign is even running political ads across the state seeking to link the Republican-led effort to impeach him to Democrats, a clear way to put pressure on GOP lawmakers in an election year.
John Hancock, the state’s former GOP chair, called the situation in Jefferson City bitter and nasty.
“You can argue about the facts of this case … but what you can’t argue is that this has divided the Republican Party,” he said.
Greitens’ legal team accused Hawley in open court of pursuing his investigation of the governor to boost his Senate campaign.
Hawley’s office later said that Greitens was improperly spending state money on his legal defense against impeachment, prompting the governor’s office to say the attorney general “has basic facts wrong” and that “the Governor’s adversaries would no doubt like to deprive the Governor’s office of counsel.”
Robyn Kuhlmann, a political scientist at the University of Central Missouri, said in an email that Hawley is in a precarious position because Greitens “still has a slim majority of Republicans in the state approving his job performance. … And that means that his message is probably resonating with quite a few Republicans who may not turn out to support a Hawley candidacy due to lack of excitement.”
James Harris, a Jefferson City-based Republican consultant, said there has been outreach by Republican donors and activists to "people in the governor's orbit" to encourage him to temper his rhetoric.
"His problems are his creation and he does not have to drag others into his mud pit," Harris said.
Harris said that McCaskill wants Republicans divided and that he hopes "smart heads prevail."
Hawley said that he was unaware of any such effort to reach out to the governor.
“If that is true, that is news to me. That happens without any input or direction by me,” he said.
Hawley said he has not spoken to the governor since January.
“He’s not around the Capitol much these days, but I’ve said I don’t think it’s appropriate to appear at political events with somebody that this office is investigating,” he said.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s office has charged Greitens with felony computer tampering based on the evidence compiled by Hawley, but Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson declined to pursue an additional charge against the governor for allegedly filing a form with the state ethics commission he knew to be false.
Hawley said the local prosecutor has discretion, but he said he stands by his analysis that there was probable cause for the governor to be charged in Cole County.
McCaskill took a jab at Hawley last weekend after Richardson declined to prosecute.
“I mean, Josh Hawley says there was a case there. I’m not aware that Josh Hawley has ever prosecuted a criminal case in his life. … And so I don’t know if his evaluation of the evidence is appropriate because I’m not aware that he’s ever prosecuted a case,” McCaskill said.
Hawley responded that he would stack his “record as a prosecutor up against hers any day of the week.”
Rep. Nate Walker, R-Kirksville, said the governor’s influence over the state Republican Party has complicated the election for other Republican candidates besides Hawley.
“The people who control the hierarchy of the Missouri Republican Party appear to be supporting Greitens 100 percent,” said Walker, an early Greitens supporter who has called on the governor to step down.
“This is very troublesome times. The Eric Greitens scandal is going to get worse. And it’s going to continue to get worse.”
Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the state party, said in a statement that it "remains focused on our mission to elect Republican candidates up and down the ballot in November by building a grassroots network across the state for all Republican candidates."
The party hosted a rally last week for Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican running in the June 5 special election in the 17th Missouri Senate District in Clay County against Democratic Rep. Lauren Arthur.
Walker, an early Greitens supporter who now opposes the governor, said the scandal has become a drag on Corlew.
Democratic mailers in the district have used a photograph of Corlew with Greitens at a black-tie function, and polling in the race indicates that the party risks losing the seat, which became open when Greitens appointed former Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Republican, to the state’s Public Service Commission.
“I think it hurts Rep. Corlew’s chances," Walker said. "He’s a good man. I do think there’s a negative thing down ballot.”
Keller said that if Republicans lose the seat, the blame will fall squarely on Greitens’ shoulders. Corlew called on Greitens to step down in February following his criminal indictment in St. Louis.
Corlew said in an email that "the people of the Northland will vote solely based on two competing visions for the kind of Senator we want representing us in Jefferson City."
He called himself a "truly independent voice for the Northland" and did not refer to the governor in the statement.
For his part, Hawley pushed back on the idea that the intense focus on the Greitens scandal, which has dominated news coverage for months and promises to continue for the foreseeable future, would be a drag on his Senate campaign. He said Republicans are united in their effort to oust McCaskill.
“Certainly the press and media attention is riveted by what’s going on in the Capitol, and certainly it’s a tough situation in the state. … But I also think that people realize that we have a Senate election coming up in November and it’s a big deal,” Hawley said.
“Everywhere I go, people know that. It’s not like they need to be reminded.”