Maybe There Is a Limit in the G.O.P. to Grievance Peddling

On Tuesday, Republican voters in Missouri will send a signal to G.O.P. leaders nationwide about what they will and won’t accept in a top candidate in the party’s current, Trumpian era: Namely, do they want a Senate nominee who exists in a perpetual swirl of scandal, including fresh accusations of domestic violence?

For much of Missouri’s Senate primary race, it sure seemed Republicans were content to careen down this path. Consistently, if narrowly, the crowded G.O.P. field was led by Eric Greitens, the state’s disgraced former governor. Leaning into his bad boy rep, Mr. Greitens sold himself as an ultra-MAGA warrior being persecuted by his political enemies — just like a certain former president! — and a good chunk of the party’s base seemed ready, even eager, to buy his line.

But it appears that MAGA may have its limits even in a deep-red state like Missouri. Certainly, electability has mattered more for many Republican officials and donors there, who have been less than enthusiastic about Mr. Greitens’s candidacy. It’s not necessarily that they found his behavior morally disqualifying — this is, after all, Donald Trump’s G.O.P. — so much as they were afraid his scandals would make him a weak general election candidate. (Democrats were certainly raring to run against him.) Losing this seat, currently held by the Republican Roy Blunt, who is retiring, would be a blow to the party’s midterm dream of winning control of the Senate. But efforts to nudge Mr. Greitens out of the race only ticked him off and provided fodder for his martyr self-mythologizing. He looked to be a classic example of how the G.O.P. had lost control of its MAGA monster.

Until late last month. That’s when a group of Republicans rolled out a super PAC, named Show Me Values, aimed at bringing down Mr. Greitens. Just a few weeks — and an estimated $6 million in ad spending — later, the effort seems to be working. Multiple polls show the former governor’s support slipping, dropping him behind a couple of his opponents. The state’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, appears to have taken the lead. He, too, is an election-denying Trump suck-up. But at this point the G.O.P. is operating on a curve; simply weeding out those alleged to be abusers and other possible criminals can feel like a major achievement.

Polls are not votes, and the race remains too tight for anyone to exhale. But with only days to go, it looks as though Mr. Greitens’ political resurrection may flop. This would be a good thing for the people of Missouri. It could also serve as a model, or at least an encouraging data point, for more sensible Republicans looking to stave off the worst actors and excesses of Trumpism — and maybe eventually put their party back on the road to sanity.

In an election cycle awash in MAGA bomb throwers vying for the title of biggest jerk, Mr. Greitens has been a top contender. Charismatic, combative and shameless, he is in many ways the essence of Trumpism. Heading into the race, he bore the stench of the multiple scandals — including allegations of sexual misconduct — that led him to step down as governor in 2018 to avoid impeachment by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature.

Then, this March, his ex-wife filed an affidavit as part of a child custody dispute, swearing that he had physically abused her and their young son. (He has denied those allegations and, of course, blames dirty politics.) This was an offense too far for many Republicans, some of whom called on Mr. Greitens to leave the race. Among these was Senator Josh Hawley, who asserted, “If you hit a woman or a child, you belong in handcuffs, not the United States Senate.”

When you’ve lost the guy who gave the infamous fist salute to the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, you know you’ve crossed a red line.

In another era, or another party, a candidate dragging around such sordid baggage might have slouched quietly away. But Mr. Greitens has adopted the Trump guide to making vileness and suspected criminality work for you: Brace up, double down and bray that any and all allegations are just part of — all together now! — a political witch hunt.

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Greitens is a political grievance peddler. Also like Mr. Trump, he saves his most concentrated bile for fellow Republicans. One of the most puerile ads of the midterms thus far has been Mr. Greitens’s “RINO hunting” spot, in which he leads a group of armed men in tactical gear as they storm a lovely little suburban home in search of G.O.P. heretics. “Get a RINO hunting permit,” Mr. Greitens urges. “There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.” Banned by Facebook, flagged by Twitter and trashed by pretty much everyone, the ad is pure political trolling.

It was around the time of the RINO hunting ad that the Show Me Values PAC was announced. Team Greitens responded with characteristic invective. “These swamp creatures and grifters know their time at the trough is finished,” said Dylan Johnson, the campaign manager. “That’s why they’re scared of America First champion Governor Greitens.”

Whatever its roots, fear is a powerful motivator. Show Me Values began gobbling up ad time like Skittles, becoming the race’s biggest spender on TV. The spots detailing the abuse allegations by Mr. Greitens’s ex-wife appear particularly devastating. It seems that, with the proper message — and money to drive that message home — even the most flamboyant MAGA candidates can perhaps be deflated.

Mr. Trump did not pioneer the brazen-it-out strategy being attempted by Mr. Greitens. But he perfected and popularized it, and under his reign, the G.O.P. has grown ever more willing to tolerate its politicians’ sketchy, creepy, violent and possibly illegal behavior, as long as they toed the line.

Just look at Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, who won his primary in May, putting him on a glide path to a third term. Republican voters stuck by him despite his having been under indictment on charges of securities fraud and other naughtiness since 2015 and, in 2020, having had multiple staff members ask federal authorities to investigate him for a smorgasbord of “potential criminal offenses.”

And for sheer MAGA shamelessness, it’s hard to top Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida Panhandle’s trash-talking mini-Trump. It takes real moxie to fund-raise off the fact that one is being investigated by the feds on suspicion of child sex trafficking. But that is how Matt rolls, and his voters seem cool with it.

This is not the mark of a healthy political party. Neither is it sustainable. Republican leaders need to get serious about reining in the Frankenstein’s monsters they have so long nurtured — before the party devolves even further into a circus of thugs, grifters and conspiracy nutters. This Tuesday, Missouri voters will, hopefully, take a baby step in that direction.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Related Articles

Back to top button