By SUMMER BALLENTINE and JIM SALTER
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens hoped to complete a stunning political comeback Tuesday as voters narrowed the field for a pivotal spot in the U.S. Senate.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt’s announcement last year that he would not seek a third term set off a frenzy for his job, with nearly three dozen people in the two major parties filing to run. With control of the Senate at stake, Democrats are hoping to pick up what should be a safe seat in red-state Missouri.
Greitens, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler were seen as leading contenders in the 21-person Republican field. Others include U.S. Rep. Billy Long and St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey, who gained notoriety in 2020 when he and his wife pointed guns at racial injustice protesters outside their home. Some Republican leaders worried that nominating the scandal-scarred Greitens could open the door for a Democrat to win in November.
The Democrats were led by Marine veteran Lucas Kunce, who has never held office but who outraised everyone in both parties, and Trudy Busch Valentine, a philanthropist, retired nurse and an heiress to the Busch family beer fortune.
Election officials were projecting about one-third of registered voters would cast ballots. But officials in the Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield areas said turnout seemed lighter. Also, some voters didn’t know they had been assigned to new legislative districts and went to the wrong polling sites.
Some were “irate” about the changes, said Kansas City election director Lauri Ealom. “It’s kind of sad, because I really believe the aggression is misplaced.”
Missouri requires identification to cast a ballot, but this is the last election before the state will require that it be a photo ID. Those who show up without ID can cast a provisional ballot.
Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who supports the photo ID law, intentionally did just that. His ballot will count if his signature matches what’s on file.
“The poll workers knew what they were doing, and Missourians should have confidence in the system,” Ashcroft said.
Greitens, a former Navy SEAL officer and Rhodes scholar, had been governor for a year when in January 2018 he confirmed a TV report about a 2015 extramarital affair. He was subsequently charged with felony invasion of privacy for allegedly taking a nude photo of the woman and using it to keep her quiet. That charge was dropped months later amid allegations that the chief investigator and local prosecutor mishandled the investigation.
Greitens, 48, says he was the victim of a political hit.
He faced a second charge accusing him of illegally using a donor list from a charity he founded to raise money for his campaign. That was dropped when he resigned in June 2018 after the Missouri House began an impeachment investigation.
This year, Greitens’ ex-wife accused him of abuse in an affidavit in a child custody case. She cited one instance where Eric Greitens allegedly slapped their then-3-year-old son’s face and yanked him by the hair. In another, she accused him of pushing her to the ground.
Greitens denied the allegations and accused his ex-wife of colluding with Republican stalwarts such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to sabotage his campaign. Sheena Greitens said she worked with no one.
Greitens also drew criticism for a June campaign video showing him brandishing a shotgun and declaring he’s hunting RINOs, or Republicans in name only.
Schmitt, 47, has gained attention for lawsuits that critics contend are politically motivated. He sued China over the coronavirus; school districts over mask mandates; and the city of St. Louis over its plan to provide $1 million for women to travel out of state for abortions.
Hartzler, 61, is a former home economics teacher and state lawmaker first elected to Congress in 2010. She is a Trump supporter who voted against certifying results of the 2020 presidential election. Yet Trump went out of his way last month to say he wouldn’t back Hartzler.
On Monday, Trump expressed support for “ERIC,” presumably meaning either Schmitt or Greitens, without picking between them. There is a third Eric in the Republican primary, comedian and Navy veteran Eric McElroy.
“I trust the Great People of Missouri, on this one, to make up their own minds, much as they did when they gave me landslide victories in the 2016 and 2020 Elections, and I am therefore proud to announce that ERIC has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump wrote.
Committees backing Greitens and Schmitt quickly cranked out phone calls claiming Trump’s endorsement.
Kunce, 39, received his own big endorsement Monday — from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Kunce served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Senate candidate John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, Kunce is a populist hoping to win back rural voters. He wants to ban stock ownership for members of Congress, break up corporate monopolies and end foreign ownership of agricultural land.
Valentine, 65, is the daughter of August “Gussie” Busch Jr., the longtime chair and CEO of Anheuser-Busch who built the St. Louis-based company into the world’s largest beermaker. The brewery was sold to InBev in 2008. Valentine said she entered the race after witnessing the “division in our country and the vitriol in our politics.”
Winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries could face an independent candidate who has significant financial support. John Wood, 52, a lifelong Republican, former U.S. attorney and most recently a top investigator for the U.S. House committee examining the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, has the backing of a political action committee led by former Republican Sen. John Danforth.
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed from Jefferson City, Missouri.
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