Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens declared Monday that he was "going RINO hunting," as the U.S. Senate candidate released a campaign video that depicted him breaking into a house surrounded by a military tactical team while holding a shotgun.
The video is Greitens' latest attack on leaders in the Republican Party, calling them RINOs — "Republicans in Name Only" — a term he said signifies a politician who "feeds on corruption and is marked by the stripes of cowardice." He offered to send a "RINO hunting tag" sticker to supporters who donate $25 or more to his campaign.
"There's no bagging limit, there's no tagging limit and it doesn't expire until we save our country," Greitens said in the video.
Two academics who specialize in research on political violence told the News-Leader the video represented an elevation in dangerous rhetoric during a time of increased focus on violence in the U.S. A third expert, who studies voter behavior and political psychology, said it was unlikely to significantly impact Greitens' level of support in a crowded primary field but could provide a fundraising boost.
"In a country this polarized and this armed, an ad like that is the height of irresponsibility," said David Romano, a Missouri State University professor who teaches a class focused on political violence around the world.
Romano believes the video falls into the category of "radicalized media," which can spur political violence in two ways: through a "lone wolf" attack by a motivated extremist, and by "socializing" segments of the public to think "it's okay, desirable, even necessary, to commit violence" against political opponents. That type of rhetoric, he said, makes it easier to recruit people into extremist organizations.
"I wish I could say (the video) was a surprise," said Stephen Bagwell, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has done research on election-related violence. "But it seems to be another step in ramping up the stakes of the election, in borrowing the language of warfare and violence for purposes that it's really not intended for."
Bagwell said violence leading up to or during elections is more likely to happen when the stakes are perceived to be higher. Raising them to this level during a primary, however, is "really rare," he said, with Greitens targeting members of his own party whom he believes are seeking to derail his campaign.
In a radio interview Tuesday morning, Greitens defended the video and said it was "entertaining to watch the faux outrage." It drew wide criticism Monday from his primary opponents, members of Congress and a Missouri police group, among others.
"The idea behind it was very simple," he told KCMO's Pete Mundo. "We wanted to demonstrate with a sense of humor and with a sense of fun that we are going to take on RINOs."
"Every normal person around the state of Missouri saw that," he added.
That sentiment, Bagwell said, doesn't dilute the substance of the video, including the presence of a "probably paramilitary organization." Greitens' campaign did not immediately respond to an inquiry Tuesday about the identity of the organization in the video.
"I don't think you can just say, 'oh, it was a joke, or it was tongue-in-cheek, or it was a loose metaphor,'" Bagwell said. "I think it's the type of thing that raises the stakes and that, combined with some of the other rhetoric, can really mobilize some extreme people who are willing to commit violence."
"Even if it's negative, it's still attention"
The video was removed from Facebook and flagged (but stayed available) on Twitter. It also earned Greitens coverage in both state and national news outlets, even as it as spurred condemnation from both sides of the political aisle.
Those results may or may not have been intentional, said Beth Vonnahme, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who studies voter behavior and political psychology. But for a candidate running a campaign against the "establishment," she said, they're likely beneficial.
"You do these kinds of things to get the attention," Vonnahme said. "And even if it's negative, it's still attention, and I think we have such a divide in this country that negative attention from the traditional news media is a bonus for his candidacy. Having Facebook and Twitter sanction him in some way is a bonus."
It is also likely to aid Greitens in one area he's lacking in compared to his competitors — money. He far outspent what he raised in the early months of 2022, according to campaign filings, though he's seen significant outside support from super PACs. U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler and Attorney General Eric Schmitt, as well as Democrat Lucas Kunce, have raised millions.
"This is a ton of free advertising they're getting," Vonnahme said.
The video isn't Greitens' first to heavily feature guns. In an April clip featuring Donald Trump Jr., he and the former president's son shot targets at a firing range before turning to the camera.
"Striking fear in the hearts of liberals everywhere, folks," Trump Jr. said. Greitens posted a similar message in a tweet, adding "RINOs and the fake media."
This week also isn't Greitens' first time under national scrutiny. He resigned in disgrace as governor in 2018 after a series of scandals that included an admitted affair, alleged sexual misconduct and an accusation that he stole a donor list from a charity he founded. This year, his ex-wife Sheena is accusing him of abuse in court as they negotiate custody of their children. He has denied the allegations from his ex-wife and declared himself exonerated from the 2018 accusations.
His time leading the state government and high name recognition has led him to amass "a pretty strong following of about a quarter of Republican primary voters," Vonnahme said.
"I don't see that changing at all with this advertisement," she said. "Given there's already allegations of blackmail, child abuse, sexual misconduct, all that already surrounding him and they're supporting him, I don't see this changing that."
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Video comes as gun violence in the spotlight
The video comes amid a renewed national focus on violence both in American life and in politics.
Members in both parties of the U.S. Senate are in the process of negotiating legislation designed to curb shootings after 19 children and two teachers were killed in Uvalde, Texas — the latest in a series of mass killings. That legislation has the support of the retiring senator Greitens aims to succeed, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.
Threats against elected officials have also recently made national headlines. A gunman suspected of shooting a county judge in Wisconsin reportedly had a list of other targets that included Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers. U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, said on Sunday he recently received a death threat to his home.
When he was running for governor in 2016, Greitens released an advertisement with a similar theme, promoting "ISIS hunting permits" targeting the Middle Eastern terrorist group. Romano, whose research is centered around the Middle East, likened the feature to global political violence campaigns that seek to vilify the opposition.
"I get having to go to certain touchstone issues on the right during a Republican primary, but surely you can do that without dehumanizing your opponents," he said. "That's a step beyond."
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Eric Greitens' new ad criticized by politics, violence experts