Depending on how things shake out, Missouri voters could face a bizarro world next fall: A former Democrat running as the Republican nominee for governor against a Democrat who used to be a Republican.
Eric Greitens is part of a crowded and growing field of Republican candidates who will face off next August. As he launched a statewide tour earlier this month, the former Democrat attempted to turn what could be a weakness in the crowded Republican primary into a strength.
“I am a conservative Republican, but I didn’t start out that way,” Greitens wrote in a Fox News editorial in mid-July.
Greitens, an ex-Navy SEAL turned New York Times best-selling author who has led the veterans' advocacy group The Mission Continues, said Democrats tried to recruit him “several years ago” to run for a federal office.
An official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee told CQ Roll Call Greitens met with the committee ahead of the 2010 elections about running against Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Republican from mid-Missouri.
Ultimately, Greitens told the DCCC no. As he put it, “There was one rather large problem: As I got older, I no longer believed in their ideas.”
The flirtation was not Greitens’ first with Democratic politics. Two years earlier, he got in the car with the state’s former Democratic governor, Bob Holden, and drove from St. Louis to Denver to see then-Sen. Barack Obama accept the nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention, Holden said.
“He was still just kind of getting his feet on the ground with The Mission Continues and all of that,” Holden told CQ Roll Call, who mentioned that Greitens actually finished one of his books at his cabin near Jefferson City. “Eric has said he leaned toward the Democratic Party. I wish he still did.”
If Greitens is successful in the primary, he would face the state's Democratic attorney general, Chris Koster. Koster, who served as a prosecutor near Kansas City and then in the Missouri Senate as a Republican, left the party in 2007 , when Republican leaders were leading the fight against stem-cell research in Missouri.
While candidate filing will not happen until next spring and nothing is official, the Republican field for governor in Missouri is starting to look like a not-so-miniature version of the party’s outsized list of candidates running for president.
Well-funded candidates to low-budget long shots have made their way into the race just months after it was shaken up following the suicide of state Auditor Tom Schweich, who was once the chief opponent of the race’s leading contender, former state Speaker Catherine Hanaway.
“Auditor Schweich’s suicide knocked the wind out of Catherine Hanaway’s candidacy, as evidenced by the fact that Missouri’s likely to have a six-way primary once John Brunner and Greitens officially enter the race,” said James Harris, a Missouri Republican consultant who is not helping any candidate in the race.
Brunner, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully in the three-way primary to take on Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2012, is preparing to launch his own campaign, he said. A wealthy St. Louis businessman who ran his 2012 campaign as an establishment-style Republican, Brunner publicly swung to the right after losing to Rep. Todd Akin.
Now, Brunner says he will "#StandWithRand," and has talked about his love for liberty and his opposition to Washington politicians in a series of online posts and speeches at conservative events around the state over the past few years.
“Politics are for politicians, not for citizens who just want to volunteer their service to solve problems and get the job done,” said Brunner, an ex-Marine, when asked how he would try to contrast with a candidate such as Greitens. “Here is a test: If you leave public office as a rich person, it wasn't public service.”
Brunner spent nearly $8 million of his own money on his Senate campaign, and has said he hopes not to rely on himself for campaign funds this time around. As he has "explored" a run this year, Brunner has raised $435,000 — far short of Greitens’ $1.3 million, or Hanaway’s $1.9 million (more than half of which was contributed to her by a single St. Louis billionaire, Rex Sinquefield).
While Greitens and Brunner are holding off on their official announcements, Hanaway was joined on the trail earlier this month by Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who lost a 2013 special election that sent Rep. Jason Smith to Washington, and state Sen. Bob Dixon.
The six-way primary could give someone like Kinder, who has won statewide elections three times in years when the other Democrats leading the ticket have won and a brutal primary in 2012, the opportunity to capitalize. Half a dozen Republican operatives in Missouri, speaking privately, said while it may be Kinder’s to lose in the primary, Greitens – with his nearly spotless record as a political newcomer and fundraising strength – might be a compelling candidate to beat Koster, who has already raised $5.9 million for his campaign.