How long will Missouri's sex-scandal-ridden governor last?

Sunday , April 15, 2018 - 9:16 AM

Amber Phillips

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

It might be one of the most shocking political fallouts of the #MeToo era. A governor once viewed as a rising star in the Republican Party, in part because of his squeaky-clean image, is now in the midst of a sex scandal and legal troubles that very likely will ruin any national ambitions he had and possibly drag down his entire party in his state ahead of November’s elections.

So will Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens resign and potentially save his party a lot of headaches? Don’t count on it, say both his allies and enemies.

“I’ve been watching this, and you know, I don’t see the governor willingly stepping down,” said Rob Schaaf, a Republican state senator who feels so strongly that Greitens should go that he wrote a letter to President Donald Trump this week asking him to urge Greitens to resign. “The longer he stays around, the worst it’s going to be for the Republicans. It’s guilty by association.”

For Greitens, staying in office means fighting multiple battles. In May, he will face a trial related to an extramarital affair he had with a hair stylist in 2015 and allegations he photographed the woman naked without her consent. On Wednesday, an explosive report written by the Republican-controlled state House was released, detailing how the woman the governor had an affair with says he sexually assaulted her and threatened her.

By Friday, Greitens’s top allies turned against him. The state’s attorney general, the state Senate majority leader and a major Greitens donor all said he should step down. So did one of his fellow Republican governors, Illinois’ Bruce Rauner. Impeachment proceedings are not out of the question.

But even those who want Greitens gone fully expect him to fight it out, to the detriment of any remaining allies he has. He’s a former Navy SEAL, said Shaaf. “It’s kind of a code to never surrender, never give up, don’t walk away from a battle, and I don’t think it’s in his nature to do it.”

Other Republicans think Greitens will at least hold on until the May trial, where evidence of any photo he allegedly took could be game over. (So far, no one in the political world has acknowledged seeing the alleged photo.)

Greitens has acknowledged he had the affair about a year before his election as governor, which was the first public office he has held. But he has denied everything else, and after the February indictment, he lawyered up to fight this in court.

But the state House report took Greitens’s problems to a whole new level, particularly for how disturbing the allegations are.

The woman told state lawmakers he hit, groped, threatened and coerced her into having sexual relations, even as at one point she said she was “uncontrollably crying.”

“I just kept saying, ‘Get me out of here. I’m not ready for this,‘” the woman testified to lawmakers. “It was also, too, that feeling of, I came here not wanting to do anything - nothing.”

Greitens has tried to frame the report as a “political witch hunt” against him by the Republican-controlled state House, further alienating people who might come to his defense.

“This is not a witch hunt,” State House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Republican, said Wednesday.

Beyond the disturbing nature of the allegations, the fear for Republicans is that Greitens’ problems bleed over into their attempts to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., this November. She is one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, given that Trump won the state by nearly 19 points. Republicans were thrilled when they got Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley to run.

But Hawley’s relationship with Greitens was complicated even before the governor’s sex scandal. Earlier this year, he cleared the governor of any wrongdoing over his staff’s use of a text messaging app that erases messages after they have been viewed, creating a stir among some legal experts that he was not thorough enough.

Hawley is also investigating the governor for allegations he improperly used a veterans charity to raise money for his campaign. And hours after the report on Greitens came out, Hawley said the governor should resign or be impeached.

“The conduct the Report details is certainly impeachable, in my judgment,” he said, “and the House is well within its rights to proceed on that front.”

But Hawley will have to work harder to create a safe enough distance between himself and the scandal-plagued governor, predict Democrats. Senate Democrats are already spending money to tie him to Greitens. They recently went on air with a TV ad saying Hawley is “part of the problem” in Missouri state politics.

“You’ve got a Republican attorney general investigating a Republican governor, so he’s got a very complicated situation,” said Roy Temple, former head of Missouri’s Democratic Party. “He doesn’t need to be trying to juggle Eric Greitens’ problems at the same time.”

Republicans’ worst-case scenario would be if the May trial doesn’t produce a certain result one way or the other. Then, Republicans will be faced with a decision on whether to impeach him, which could take them right up to November’s midterm elections.

“The scandal could just block out the sun for Republicans and completely demoralize their party,” Temple said, right as Democrats across the nation are surging with newfound activism. Missouri Democrats have put up more candidates to challenge Republican state lawmakers than at any time in the past two decades.

Missouri Republicans in the thick of the Greitens fallout don’t disagree that the governor’s problems could sink some of them. Especially since the governor and his scandals aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.

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