Inside the secret, yearlong campaign to torpedo Eric Greitens' attempted comeback

·11 min read

Republican strategist Johnny DeStefano had a discreet Zoom call with GOP megadonor Rex Sinquefield in May to talk over a plan that would shake up the Missouri Senate race. Their agenda: sinking Republican hopeful Eric Greitens.

DeStefano had been working with Sinquefield’s top adviser, Mary Ellen Ponder, and the two presented Sinquefield with a blueprint to demolish Greitens’ standing in the polls. Sinquefield saw Greitens, who stepped down as governor in 2018 amid allegations of sexual assault and recently faced accusations of child abuse from his ex-wife, as unfit for office. And top Republicans believed he would be a mortal threat to the party’s prospects of holding what should be a safe seat.

This year, putting one seat at risk would mean endangering Republican hopes of capturing the Senate majority in the November midterms. Sinquefield, a 76-year-old index fund pioneer, quietly plotted with DeStefano to launch a super PAC that would barrage Greitens with slashing TV advertisements starting in late June, about a month before the Aug. 2 primary. He seeded the group with $1 million just before the super PAC began the ad campaign that helped lead to Greitens’ defeat on Tuesday, when he was running in third place as state Attorney General Eric Schmitt was declared the primary winner.

The ad offensive was the most public part of a year-long, behind the-scenes campaign to stop Greitens from winning the GOP nomination for retiring Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) seat, which was described to POLITICO by more than a dozen people involved in the race.

Party higher-ups from Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel to National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott to GOP megadonor Steve Wynn repeatedly pressed former President Donald Trump to not back Greitens. The lobbying effort would extend to the eve of the primary, when McDaniel advised Trump to resist giving a late, full-throated endorsement to the former governor, who had been aggressively courting him.

At the same time, a small group of Republican strategists corralled donors like Sinquefield and Anheuser-Busch scion August Busch, who shared a visceral desire to block the former governor. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s political machine, meanwhile, weighed its options until near the end of the contest, when it quietly contributed around $6.7 million to the anti-Greitens TV blitz, a previously unreported investment that helped seal the former governor’s fate.

“There can be no question that Greitens’ candidacy threatened Republican control of this Senate seat. Nominating him would have put in play a seat that Republicans absolutely shouldn’t have to worry about,” said Peter Kinder, a former Missouri lieutenant governor. “There was clear need for someone to assemble the resources to tell the truth about him that had never been told.”

Holding off Trump

While a number of powerful Republicans were aligned against Greitens, there was still one figure who could have given his campaign a huge GOP primary boost: Trump.

This spring, McDaniel and Scott went to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate to meet with the former president. The three talked about the 2022 electoral landscape — and McDaniel and Scott took the opportunity to argue that backing Greitens would be an error, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

The GOP chair felt that Trump should remain neutral in the primary and believed Greitens would be a weak general election nominee. Scott had the same message, and he spoke with Trump roughly a half-dozen separate times to reinforce it, oftentimes presenting polling to make his case that Greitens would jeopardize the party’s hold on the seat.

McDaniel and Scott were part of a broader group of Republicans trying to ward off a Trump endorsement for Greitens. They were joined by Trump allies like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Trump White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, who also relayed their concerns to Trump.

But they faced strong opposition from an array of MAGA loyalists who promoting Greitens, a roster that included conservative megadonor Bernie Marcus and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the fiancée of Donald Trump Jr., both of whom lobbied the former president on Greitens’ behalf. The former governor also became a frequent guest on “War Room,” the popular podcast hosted by former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Trump at first appeared cool to idea of an endorsement. During one meeting with advisers last year, he poked fun at Greitens, who stepped down as governor in 2018 amid accusations that he had tied up and blindfolded his hairdresser before sexually assaulting her.

“You know what I call him? ‘Whips and chains,’” Trump said, according to one person familiar with the meeting, adding that the alleged incident would make it hard for Greitens to be elected.

But the former president never appeared to fully rule out an endorsement — and Greitens had been spotted at Mar-a-Lago, alarming Republicans. Early this year, he landed a meeting with Trump.

Schmitt, the Greitens rival who ultimately won the primary, also moved to block a Greitens endorsement. He became a visitor to Mar-a-Lago and the former president’s Bedminster, N.J., golf club, where in meetings with Trump he highlighted Greitens’ past scandals and called him a “quitter,” a word Trump views as an insult, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Whenever Schmitt’s team heard that Greitens was at Trump’s South Florida resort, they passed along polling information and memos to Trump’s aides aimed at undermining the ex-governor. When Schmitt’s supporters were taking trips to Mar-a-Lago, they were supplied with similar anti-Greitens materials to share.

And Schmitt became a regular guest on TV networks Trump was known to watch, like Newsmax and One America News. His campaign even booked appearances on Fox News that were timed to when they believed Trump would be returning from his regular golf outings.

The St. Louis meeting

In early May, David Polyansky, a strategist for a super PAC supporting Schmitt, flew to St. Louis to meet with Busch, the former brewing company executive. The 85-year-old had been a major contributor to Greitens’ 2016 gubernatorial campaign — but like many one-time backers, he was no longer a fan and wanted to see Greitens lose his Senate bid.

But Polyansky told Busch, a Schmitt supporter, that his super PAC was primarily focused, for the time being, on elevating Schmitt and targeting another candidate, Rep. Vicky Hartzler. The strategist argued that it made more sense for another group solely focused on attacking Greitens to take the lead.

At around that time, word began to percolate through Missouri’s tight-knit Republican donor world that DeStefano was interested in forming such a PAC.

DeStefano, a Kansas City native who spent years as a Republican political operative before serving in the Trump White House, saw that no outside group had yet emerged to take on Greitens, and believed that unless someone stepped up he would win the party’s nomination.

Whether an anti-Greitens blitz would work was unclear: DeStefano’s initial polling, like surveys elsewhere, showed the former governor with a lead over a splintered group of rivals. But as he talked with donors, DeStefano presented a game plan and made the case there was a path.

He focused his outreach on Missouri-based contributors, believing that a home-grown effort would have more potency than a Washington-based one, and would insulate it from the inevitable charge from Greitens that he was the victim of a Beltway-orchestrated plot. DeStefano, who was one of the few operatives involved in Missouri who hadn’t picked sides in the primary, stressed that the new super PAC would zero in on Greitens rather than boosting one of his rivals.

Before long, he got commitments from Sinquefield and Busch — signaling to other funders that it was safe to get off the sidelines.

“Missouri donors were in, and they finally had a vehicle,” said Christian Morgan, a Missouri-based GOP strategist who helped introduce DeStefano to the state’s donors.

Show Me Values would publicly launch in late June, with hard-hitting TV ads highlighting the sexual assault allegations, which Greitens has denied. The former governor responded to the barrage by declaring that he was being targeted by “Never-Trump, RINO politicians from all over the country.”

The McConnell machine engages

From his office in downtown Washington, Steven Law, who runs the McConnell-aligned super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, saw a Greitens nomination as potentially cataclysmic for the party. He recalled that in 2012 a similarly tarnished GOP nominee, Todd Akin, had lost a Missouri Senate race, and he was aware that the state had a history of ticket-splitting, meaning that Republican voters could end up ditching Greitens for another candidate, even while they supported other GOP candidates on the ballot.

Pushing Greitens over the finish line in a general election, Law believed, could cost the party as much as $40 million, funds the party needed for other races.

In June, Law caught wind that DeStefano was planning something. He liked that the Show Me Values super PAC was Missouri-based, wasn’t aligned with a candidate, and had received a big financial commitment from Sinquefield, a prominent GOP donor. And he had a preexisting relationship with DeStefano, who was wired into Missouri politics.

On June 20, Law reached out to the super PAC and said he would be making a financial commitment. Senate Leadership Fund ended up being the biggest donor to Show Me Values, contributing $6.7 million of the $8 million-plus it raised.

“Ultimately, the consideration that really made us look very long and hard about intervening was purely financial,” Law said. “That’s tens of millions of dollars that could be better spent to help another Senate race, and we concluded that it would just be much more cost-effective if it were possible to ensure that Greitens wasn’t the nominee.”

In just over a month, the super PAC became the biggest-spending outfit in the race. Greitens saw his support almost instantaneously collapse: The super PAC conducted a poll 10 days after it launched which showed Greitens falling to third place.

“What happened was Greitens had more of a glass jaw than a lot of people thought,” Law said.

The 'ERICs'

In late July, Greitens connected by phone with Trump and made his final pitch.

During the conversation, according to one person briefed on the call, Trump asked him, among other things, what his poll numbers looked like and how he would respond to criticisms over his past.

The fight for Trump’s endorsement would reach a climax during the final weekend of the campaign, while Trump was hosting a golf tournament at Bedminster. The Greitens and Schmitt campaigns squared off in a lobbying blitz that both would later describe as political hand-to-hand combat.

Greitens’ most forceful advocate that weekend was Guilfoyle, who pressed Trump to get behind her candidate, according to people familiar with what transpired at the tournament. Greitens’ campaign also sent Trump aides a series of documents presenting the former governor in a favorable light, including polling data aimed at pushing back on the idea he would be a weak nominee.

The Schmitt forces responded by forwarding their own favorable polling data and news coverage. Each campaign kept close tabs on the other, getting updates from on-the-ground supporters in New Jersey about what the other side was doing.

Late Sunday evening, Trump initiated a flurry of speculation that he was leaning Greitens’ way with a social media post. Trump linked to a story from the conservative outlet Breitbart, which accused Remington Research — a polling outfit run by Schmitt operatives — of publishing a survey that understated Trump’s support in Missouri. Rumors of an imminent Greitens endorsement intensified Monday morning, when Trump said he would be making an announcement on whom he would support later in the day.

But what ensued over the next chaotic seven hours at Bedminster would rob Greitens’ of his long-held hope of receiving Trump’s exclusive endorsement. During a wild day of deliberations, Trump heard from Guilfoyle, who made a forceful case for Greitens. But others pushed back on the idea — including McDaniel, who was there for a previously-scheduled meeting.

Trump settled on a compromise, drafting a statement in which he declared his support for “ERIC” — delivering, in essence, a dual endorsement for Greitens and Schmitt in the form of a pun. Just after the statement went out, Trump called Greitens and congratulated him — without mentioning that he was also backing Greitens’ rival.

It was the last gasp of a fading campaign. On Tuesday — weighed down by a multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign and lacking the exclusive Trump endorsement he so coveted — Greitens’ hopes for a political comeback were extinguished.