CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — Voters here in this languid town along the Mississippi River, famous for being the boyhood home of Rush Limbaugh and for its history of devastating floods, sent an unmistakable message on Tuesday: They like Eric.
The attorney general of Missouri stomped the man widely seen as his chief rival, Eric Greitens, the disgraced former governor, despite some last-minute high jinks from Donald Trump. With a chaos-inducing puckishness that baffled national Republicans and local operatives alike, the former president had hedged his bets and endorsed “ERIC” — only Eric, no last name — for the Senate seat now held by Roy Blunt, who is retiring.
It was a Solomonic, baby-splitting move without precedent, but it reflected Trump’s genuine dilemma and a fierce debate within his camp about which Eric was the true “MAGA” stalwart. Was it Greitens, the retired Navy SEAL, humanitarian Rhodes scholar who once openly admired Barack Obama? Or Schmitt, the mainstream Republican who reinvented himself as an anti-mask and anti-vaccine warrior in preparation for this week’s victory?
As of Friday evening, Trump was still asking aides, “What should we do about Missouri?” His son Donald Trump Jr., and the younger Trump’s fiancée, Kimberly Guilfoyle, had lobbied fiercely on behalf of Greitens, and had even claimed after Monday’s ambiguous endorsement that the elder Trump really meant to choose the former governor, not the attorney general. The 45th president himself never clarified, a hedge that allowed him to claim victory either way.
Guilfoyle, according to two people who heard accounts of her lobbying efforts, sought to persuade Trump that Greitens was truly ahead in the race. At one point, they said, she cited Big Penguin Polling, a little-known outfit that has a lively Twitter presence but does not disclose the full names of its proprietors. Trump trashed polling by the Remington Research Group, a survey firm linked to Jeff Roe of Axiom Strategies, which managed Schmitt’s campaign. But Remington’s numbers proved far more accurate than Big Penguin’s.
It was also a victory for establishment Republicans in Washington as they tussle (often in vain) for control of the party with Trump’s vast alumni network, which has fanned out across the country to back one candidate or another.
A onetime national rising star
Before eventually running as a Republican, Greitens considered a career as a Democrat — pressing friends for meetings with Senator Claire McCaskill, for instance, and even traveling to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 to watch Barack Obama become the Democratic presidential nominee.
In the run-up to his surprise victory in the 2016 governor’s race, Greitens was seeking — and getting — mainstream national attention, despite never having served a day in office. He sat for interviews with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart to promote his books, which now read with an eerie irony in light of his subsequent fall from grace.
In “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life,” a 2015 book that became a New York Times best seller, Greitens offers kernels of wisdom like “Resilience is cultivated not so that we can perform well in a single instance, but so that we can live a full and flourishing life.”
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One blurb for the book was by Admiral Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the day of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound — an operation conducted by an elite unit of Greitens’s former counterparts in the Navy SEALs. “Eric Greitens provides a brilliant and brave course of action to help navigate life’s roughest waters,” Mullen wrote.
There was more. J.J. Abrams, the filmmaker, called Greitens “one of the great Americans of our time.” Tom Brokaw called him “my hero,” while Joe Klein, the former Time magazine writer, devoted half of an entire book, “Charlie Mike,” to Greitens and his military exploits. (“To say that ‘Charlie Mike’ glorifies Greitens is like saying God comes off well in the Bible,” one former colleague of Klein’s wrote in a scathing reassessment of Greitens after his resignation.)
Accolades came easily in a media climate that glorified warriors with Ph.D.s — and Greitens was an unusually charismatic figure whose charity work gained him national recognition and lucrative speaking contracts. Time magazine named him to its “100 most influential people” list (Mullen wrote the short bio, in which he called Greitens “one of the most remarkable young men I have ever encountered”); Fortune magazine rated him one of the 50 greatest leaders in the world, sandwiched at No. 37 behind Joko Widodo, then the governor of Jakarta, Indonesia, and Wynton Marsalis, the jazz musician.
Greitens’s relentless self-promotion irked some of his fellow Navy SEAL alumni, who began circulating a video highlighting what they claimed were discrepancies between his account of his military service and his actual record.
By the end of this campaign, however, Greitens had alienated all of his onetime admirers. Even Ken Harbaugh, a former close friend and early contributor to his troubled veterans charity, The Mission Continues, recorded a video urging him to drop out.
Greitens also made a number of odd choices during the campaign, including his participation in a Christian baptism ceremony (he is Jewish) and a sudden trip to Finland over the July 4 weekend in which he competed in a 400-meter running event that he cast as a typical feat of athletic prowess. Breitbart’s glowing write-up of the race noted that he finished “just deciseconds behind the third and fourth place United States finishers,” without adding that he placed 22nd out of 25 competitors.
A victory for McConnell
The defeat of Eric No. 2 was a rare victory for Senator Mitch McConnell, whose allies quietly funneled “around $6.7 million to the anti-Greitens TV blitz,” according to Politico’s Alex Isenstadt.
McConnell cloaked his involvement throughout the race, mindful of Greitens’s penchant for political jujitsu. The minority leader’s political advisers, usually quick to run a phone call or text, went silent for weeks. A super PAC set up to run television ads highlighting the former governor’s history of scandals emphasized its Missouri roots, while declining to disclose donors from outside the state.
Less than a week before Election Day, both of Eric No. 2’s main opponents said they would not vote to make McConnell majority leader if Republicans took the Senate this fall — a reflection of the anti-establishment fervor among the G.O.P. grass-roots.
Eric No. 1’s victory was also a relief for the dozens of Missouri Republicans who labored for months to ensure Eric No. 2’s defeat.
As Scott Faughn, the plugged-in publisher of The Missouri Times, a conservative political outlet focused on state politics, put it in a parting comment at Schmitt’s victory party on Tuesday night, “We’re crazy, but not Eric Greitens crazy.”
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