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Missouri Gov. Greitens shows how the party system is broken

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens speaks at a news conference about allegations related to his extramarital affair with his hairdresser, in Jefferson City, Mo., Wednesday, April 11, 2018. (Photo: Julie Smith/Jefferson City News-Tribune via AP)

Embattled Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is a textbook case, like President Trump, of the danger of political parties losing control over their primaries.

When Greitens ran for governor in 2016, he promised in a TV ad to “take dead aim at politics as usual” and then shot a machine gun at a target that exploded and sent flames high into the air.

The only thing exploding now, however, is his political career and the Missouri Republican Party with it.

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Jon Ward’s “Long Game” podcast looks at Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and how his rise to power as a first-time candidate with no connections or allegiances to the Republican party has made him impervious to appeals from the state GOP to resign for the good of the party. 

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Greitens faces the likelihood of impeachment by the state Legislature after being charged with two felonies over the past month: one involving accusations of blackmailing and physically abusing a woman he had an affair with and another related to allegations he improperly used the e-mail list of a nonprofit he founded to raise campaign funds.

Greitens, who based his campaign around his service in the Navy SEALs, shows no indications of resigning. His woes threaten to drag down the entire slate of Republican candidates in the state this year, but this doesn’t seem to factor into his thinking, since he is in a war of words with the Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is running for the U.S. Senate.

“This guy doesn’t care about the party, and he doesn’t care about the (conservative) movement,” Missouri Republican strategist Gregg Keller told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“I haven’t seen anything out of Eric Greitens that suggests he has any loyalty to the Republican Party,” said GOP consultant Jon Prouty on “This Week in Missouri Politics.”

This is because, as former Missouri Democratic chair Roy Temple told Yahoo News this week, Greitens “had no connection to the state party, zero” when he ran for the governorship.

The Missouri governor, like Trump, received the support of only about one-third of Republican voters in the party primary. But like the president, Greitens was helped by a crowded primary field that splintered the two-thirds of establishment-minded Republican voters into fragments.

Dark money was the other big reason Greitens won without any party support. Because campaign finance law has pushed political money outside of parties and into the more opaque world of unaccountable outside groups, state parties have lost much of their reason for existence.

Greitens received a massive influx of cash directly from dark money groups that have no legal obligation to disclose their donors, and even more was spent on TV ads by similar groups.

Scott Faughn, who owns the Missouri Times news site and hosts “This Week in Missouri Politics,” said that by his calculations, Greitens benefited from millions of dollars in dark money for television ads, in addition to the $32 million he received directly.

“The reason Eric Greitens exists and has brought the great shame and embarrassment to our state that he has is the amazing amount of outside money that was used in kind of a federal system,” Faughn said. “It just swamped the field. They probably spent 50 [million] of that in the primary, and he outspent the primary field 2 to 1, and it was very effective.”

Greitens’s fundraising was also helped by his hiring national political consultants, such as Nick Ayers, a Georgian who learned the art of raising big money from former Republican national chair and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Ayers is now chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.

One dark money group even ran attack ads against two of Greitens’s Republican primary opponents, under the name LG PAC. It made it look like the ads were coming from Greitens’s third primary opponent, the state’s Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.

But LG PAC was backing Greitens, and through federal financial disclosure forms, Ayers has been connected to LG PAC.

Before the McCain-Feingold legislation in 2003 limited donations to political parties, which was followed by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case that led to an explosion in outside groups, Missouri politics was shaped by the two state parties.

“In 1998 to 2000, when I was executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, issue ads flowed through the state parties,” said Temple. “So you had an enormous amount of money flowing through state parties and really big coordinated campaigns, and those created opportunities for coordination and collaboration and strengthening the party and that gave you residual ability to help out on other things and to facilitate conversations because you were a strategic partner in some of those things.”

“Then you fast-forward to 2016, and you have as much going on through super PACs and independent expenditures,” Temple said. “And then you’ve got candidates who do not rely on the grassroots structures. A lot of it has been ‘professionalized.’”

In other words, Temple said, the whole business of finding and persuading and turning out voters for a candidate has been transferred from a state party that is connected to activists and volunteers, to a universe of private businesses who work for individual candidates.

Over time, Temple said, candidates saw that “it became much more important what your history was with potential funders than it was what your history was with party activists.”

Faughn said the state parties are now “a homeless guy with a tin cup, begging for money.”

The state parties lack a clear purpose, Temple said. “Are they registering voters? Are they turning out voters? Are they persuading voters? A lot of that is taken up inside campaigns and independent expenditures,” he said.

Now the people with the most influence over who wins primaries are nameless, faceless donors.

“You can say party insiders had too much authority or made decisions you wouldn’t have supported, but at least they were democratically elected,” Temple said. “You could always become a member of your party organization and have a hand in who those people were. You can’t decide who the rich people that Eric Greitens gives a damn about are.”

Missouri Republican Gov.-elect Eric Greitens delivers a victory speech alongside his wife, Sheena, and son Joshua Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Chesterfield, Mo. (Photo: Jeff Curry/AP)

Greitens, 44, had no previous experience in politics. He had never held elected office, run a campaign or worked in government. But he had long held political ambitions, and about a decade ago, he is said to have met with leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties to plan a future candidacy.

“It’s pretty clear he was shopping for a party, and it wasn’t based on any sort of ideological positions that were taken. He wanted to find the best vehicle to get him into office,” Prouty told Faughn on “This Week.”

Having had nothing to do with getting him elected, the Republican Party establishment in Missouri can do little to persuade Greitens to step aside.

“There’s nobody who can put their arm around him and say, ‘For the good of the cause, my friend, your time has come,’” Temple said.

“He feels no sense of responsibility, no sense of loyalty to any purpose larger than himself,” Temple said. “And so he is inflicting extraordinary harm, in my view, on the state and on his party, and he just doesn’t give a damn because he doesn’t have to. As long as he maintains relationships with people who will give him campaign contributions, he can do whatever he wants.”

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