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Eric Greitens’s Turbulent Political Career Stands on the Brink

If Eric Greitens, a retired Navy SEAL and former Rhodes scholar who resigned in disgrace four years ago as governor of Missouri, loses his bid for a Senate seat in next week’s Republican primary, his defeat will be a lesson that the laws of political gravity do, in fact, still apply.

A late advertising onslaught highlighting Mr. Greitens’s past scandals blanketed the airwaves over the last few weeks, funded by donors from his own party. The barrage of attack ads has taken the former governor from a seemingly invulnerable lead in the polls to a position somewhere behind Eric Schmitt, the state’s attorney general.

Mr. Greitens, a political chameleon who first ran for office in 2016 as an anti-establishment outsider, only to lose his perch two years later, reinvented himself as an “ultra-MAGA” warrior as he sought to replace Senator Roy Blunt, who is retiring.

But his past conduct and aggressive campaign posture have alienated many traditional conservatives in Missouri, while failing to attract their intended audience of one: former President Donald J. Trump, who has not endorsed anyone in the bitterly contested Aug. 2 primary.

That decision has left a vacuum that has been filled by Mr. Greitens’s many adversaries, who pooled their resources in a last-ditch attempt to end his political career once and for all. Local donors enlisted Johnny DeStefano, a Kansas City-bred political operative who worked in Mr. Trump’s White House, to lead Show Me Values, a super PAC whose negative ads appear to have done real damage to Mr. Greitens’s standing with voters.

Rene Artman, the chairwoman of the St. Louis County Republican Central Committee, said Mr. Greitens’s biggest liability was his treatment of women, after allegations of abuse from his ex-wife, Sheena Greitens, and a former hairdresser with whom he had a sexual relationship.

Ms. Artman and other female Republican leaders in the state had tried and failed to pressure the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party to come out more forcefully against Mr. Greitens’s candidacy.

“We are not to stand in judgment, but marriage vows are the most sacred,” she said. “If you can’t keep those vows, if you have betrayed those vows, how can I believe any promises you make to me as a senator?”

In response, Mr. Greitens has lashed out against his perceived enemies, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whom he accused without evidence of scheming in Washington to defeat him; Karl Rove, a former political adviser to President George W. Bush who has quietly encouraged donors and political operatives in Missouri to ensure that Mr. Greitens is defeated; and his own ex-wife, who finalized their divorce in 2020 and moved to Texas, where she is now seeking to relocate the ongoing battle over custody of their two children.

She has made sworn allegations of domestic abuse that have reverberated during the campaign, underscoring Mr. Greitens’s image in Missouri as a man with a history of violent behavior.

Asked for comment, Mr. Greitens’s lawyer in the custody dispute said only that “Eric’s primary focus is on protecting the children” and pointed to a statement from March that questioned Ms. Greitens’s motives.

Dylan Johnson, a spokesman for Mr. Greitens’s campaign, said, “Governor Greitens has received tremendous support from the grass-roots,” adding, “We have seen biased and fake polling throughout U.S. Senate races in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and these same pollsters are playing the same game in Missouri.”

Until the last few weeks of the campaign, Mr. Greitens seemed to have weathered scandal after scandal. These included lurid accusations that in 2015, he tied up a woman in the basement of his house, threatened to blackmail her with a nude photograph and forced her to perform oral sex on him against her will.

Mr. Greitens has publicly denied all wrongdoing and has insisted that the encounter with the woman, as well as subsequent ones, were consensual, but the allegations helped fuel an impeachment inquiry by Republicans in the state Legislature that culminated in his resignation on June 1, 2018.

Four years later, Mr. Greitens mounted an improbable comeback — and it seemed to work at first. Running in Mr. Trump’s mold against “snakes” and “RINOs,” a derogatory acronym that stands for “Republicans in Name Only,” he led the polls for more than a year while his opponents, who also include Representatives Billy Long and Vicky Hartzler, squabbled among themselves.

The race drew in two men seen as possible presidential candidates in 2024: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who campaigned for Mr. Schmitt, and Josh Hawley, Missouri’s other senator, who endorsed Ms. Hartzler.

But to Mr. Trump’s evident irritation, Ms. Hartzler declined to fully back his conspiracy theories about the 2020 election or embrace his falsehoods about the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. In a statement on July 9 that demonstrated Mr. Trump’s ability to bend Republican primaries to his will, he said he didn’t think Ms. Hartzler “has what it takes to take on the Radical Left Democrats.” Her poll numbers soon plummeted, while Mr. Schmitt’s rose.

Mr. Trump continued to waver on whether to back Mr. Greitens. The former president’s decision was complicated by the fact that his eldest son’s fiancée, Kimberly Guilfoyle, is the chairwoman of Mr. Greitens’s Senate campaign. Days after calling Mr. Greitens “smart and tough,” Mr. Trump tempered the remark with the accurate observation that Democrats would probably prefer to run against the former governor rather than a different Republican.

As governor, Mr. Greitens alienated leading members of his party, whom he often attacked as “corrupt” and out of touch. His lack of credible Republican allies has haunted him during the final stretch of the campaign, despite his appeal to elements of Mr. Trump’s base.

The role of Ms. Greitens has been a major factor in the race. Missouri news outlets have covered her and Mr. Greitens’s custody case in intricate detail, including a sworn affidavit she issued in March that publicly aired her fears for their sons’ safety and accused him of several incidents of domestic violence.

Throughout the custody dispute, Mr. Greitens has responded by accusing her of lying and suggesting her motives are political. He has argued that she did not air those allegations privately during the course of marital therapy sessions the couple participated in during the weeks after his resignation.

But Ms. Greitens did raise her growing alarm about her husband in writing at the time, according to documents shared with The New York Times. In emails to the therapist, she expressed several “areas of concern” — drawing on her recollections, contemporaneous emails and a journal she kept to chronicle what she called “Eric’s behavior.” The records appear to track the sworn allegations she made.

One memo attached to an email dated June 14, 2018, lists “a pattern of suicide threats and firearm confiscation” and describes her view that her husband at the time had a “volatile” temper.

“His fuse is basically nonexistent,” she wrote. “He goes from calm to physically angry in a flash.” Ms. Greitens declined to comment.

On July 20 of this year, after months of negotiation and delay, Mr. Greitens sat for a five-hour deposition in which he fielded questions about his marriage under oath for the first time. He also submitted his own affidavit formally responding to his ex-wife’s allegations. At the insistence of Mr. Greitens’s lawyer, the judge in the case has kept the documents under seal.

Should Mr. Greitens win on Tuesday despite all the forces arrayed against him, it would not be the first time he has escaped repercussions.

In 2018, a Republican-led special committee in the Missouri House produced a 75-page final report about his treatment of the hairdresser that included damning and humiliating details. Mr. Greitens refused to testify or otherwise participate in the inquiry, but many Missouri insiders thought he might be able to survive the scandal through sheer force of will. He faced felony charges in connection with the scandal, but they were dropped.

When he announced his resignation on May 29, 2018, effective three days later, it shocked his closest aides. Many now rue the fact that he avoided criminal liability and that he has made it this far in the Senate primary by claiming he was persecuted for political reasons.

With Mr. Greitens’s inner circle shrunken to just a few loyal but inexperienced political advisers, some of his former allies are worried about how he would handle a possible defeat.

His money has dried up: Billionaire backers like Richard Uihlein and Bernie Marcus have stopped contributing to a super PAC supporting Mr. Greitens, though a little-known new donor — a heavily muscled, tattooed motivational speaker and podcast host named Andy Frisella — came forward in late June with a $1 million donation.

During the campaign, Mr. Greitens has appealed to the outer fringes of the Republican Party. In one online video that was widely condemned by fellow Republicans and removed by some social media companies, Mr. Greitens racks a shotgun as masked commandos wielding military-style rifles storm a house, supposedly hunting for “RINOs.”

The video alarmed an informal network of former Greitens aides who broke with him and still keep in touch with one another via text message. In interviews, which they granted under the condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety, several said they interpreted the video as a veiled threat to them personally and yet another sign of Mr. Greitens’s erratic behavior.

The winner of Tuesday’s Republican primary will go on to face either Lucas Kunce, a retired Marine who has run as a Bernie Sanders-style progressive Democrat, or Trudy Busch Valentine, an heiress to the Busch family beer fortune who has plowed millions of her own dollars into the campaign but has struggled to gain traction with voters.

Missouri has turned sharply Republican in recent years, leading most political analysts to discount the prospect that a Democrat could defeat even Mr. Greitens, despite his baggage.

But if Mr. Greitens loses — and it is still far from guaranteed that he will — it would probably mean the ignominious end of a meteoric political career that burned brightly for a time, then crashed.

At the very top of the dome of the Missouri State Capitol, up a steep series of staircases and hidden among thousands of graffitied names of visitors who took the extended history tour of the century-old building, is the former governor’s signature — written, according to some of the former aides who were with him on that final day in office, in the wee hours of the morning, during a moment of longing for what might have been.

It reads: Eric Greitens, June 1, 2018.

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