Man On A Mission: Eric Greitens Embarks On Quest To Become Missouri's Governor

Oct 20, 2016

It’s mid-afternoon in a VFW Hall in Overland, Missouri, and Eric Greitens has a room full of veterans at full attention. Two Medal of Honor recipients, Michael Thornton and Thomas Norris, just introduced Greitens, and he’s about to provide the crowd with details about his newest mission: Becoming governor of Missouri.

On campaign stops like these, the uniform of the former Navy SEALs is often a blazer, an Oxford-cloth shirt with no tie, and jeans. His speech delivery is disciplined, sharp and deliberate: At town halls and debates, Greitens argues that Jefferson City’s political class has faltered and failed.

“We need to have leaders that will put others first,” said Greitens, drawing applause from the audience.

After finishing his speech, taking pictures with fervent supporters and holding at least one baby, Greitens told a gaggle of reporters that he can cut through what he sees as a morass of mediocrity and failure in Jefferson City. He cites his life experience – and his newcomer status.

“I think what’s going to help us win on Nov. 8 is the fact that people in Missouri want a leader,” Greitens said. “They want somebody who has a history of getting results. And when they look at what I’ve done at the Mission Continues, running my own business, serving as a Navy SEAL, doing humanitarian work overseas, what they see is a leader. As compared to a career politician who spent his life serving himself.”

Greitens has to convince Missouri’s voters to elect a governor without any experience in elected office over a Democratic opponent, Attorney General Chris Koster, with plenty. That’s something that Show Me State voters haven’t done in decades. And to do that, Greitens must wade through doubters and detractors who don’t believe he can be or is an authentic change agent.

Still, Greitens is confident.

“We’re going to win this election because we’re going to take this state in a new direction,” Greitens said. “They’re tired of crooked, career politicians that have taken this state in the wrong direction.”

Sheena Greitens watches her husband Eric Greitens make a speech in Overland. Sheena Greitens, who has a PhD from Harvard University, teaches at the University of Missouri-Columbia and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for East Asia Policy Studies.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum / St. Louis Public Radio

In the arena

By now, most Missourians who follow state politics closely know about Greitens’ lengthy resume: He’s a Rhodes scholar. He’s a best-selling author and highly sought after speaker. He’s the founder of the Mission Continues, a veterans’ service organization. And he’s a husband and a father to two young boys.

That’s a lot of accomplishments to fit into his 42 years. The question is does he really need to be an elected official?

Greitens emphatically says yes.

“It’s a certainly a tough mission,” Greitens said earlier this year. “But we’re taking this mission on because we believe, and I believe, that government is broken in Missouri. It’s no longer government that really serves the people and works for people in Missouri. And instead, we have too many people who are struggling around Missouri – people who are hurting.”

Greitens grew up in St. Louis County. His mother was an early childhood education teacher, and his father worked for the Department of Agriculture. After Parkway North High School, Greitens graduated from Duke University. He received his postgraduate degree in philosophy at Oxford University in England, where he also excelled in boxing.

Right before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Greitens enlisted in the military and began his Navy SEAL training. He served in Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s this part of professional experience that’s been highlighted the most on the stump and in visually memorable television advertisements.

For Greitens, there's an discernable connection between serving the military and leading a government.

“One of the great things about serving as a Navy SEAL and serving in the military is that you bring people together,” Greitens said. “I served with Americans from every corner of the country, every conceivable ethnic and economic background – and we built great teams and we served great missions.”

Eric Greitens answers a question during St. Louis Public Radio's GOP gubernatorial candidate debate earlier this year.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio

Ready for prime time

By his own admission, Greitens came of age as a Democrat. He forged a fairly close relationship with former Gov. Bob Holden: The two even attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention together. “I thought I would be pretty convincing that he should be a Democrat,” Holden said on a 2015 episode of the Politically Speaking podcast. “He decided he’s a Republican.”

Holden wasn’t the only person who couldn’t convince Greitens to take up the Democratic mantle: Some national Democratic figures tried to get him to run against U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer after the St. Elizabeth Republican narrowly won his first race in 2008. (Greitens passed, and Luetkemeyer faced no Democratic opposition that year.)

Greitens said he was “born and raised a Democrat,” and admired Democratic political figures like Harry S Truman and John F. Kennedy. In fact, he joked during his victory celebration in August that when his mother voted for him, it was her first time ever to vote for a Republican.

But even amid doubts about his GOP credentials, Greitens said he believes in the party’s principles.

“I’m a Republican and a conservative not by birth, but by conviction,” Greitens said. “And that conviction has come from experiences. The experience of serving as a Navy SEAL, doing four tours of duty in the global war on terrorism, the experience of running my own business, the experience of what the government bureaucracy did to my friends.

"All of those things shaped my conservative philosophy," he added.

If elected, Greitens says he would sign “right to work” – which would bar unionized entities from forcing employees to pay dues as a condition of employment. He also pledged to curb lobbyist influence in state government, and push for term limits for statewide officials (only governor and treasurer are now term-limited).

“As a leader, you also have to set an example,” Greitens said. “I said on the very first day of my campaign that I will never, not for months or year but for the rest of my life, I will never engage in lobbying.”

Greitens also expressed strong support for gun rights (as evidenced by eye-popping commercials during the GOP primary) and opposition to abortion. He opposed a constitutional amendment, known as SJR39, that would have allowed certain businesses to deny services to same-sex couples. And he has been critical of how Gov. Jay Nixon and Koster responded to the shooting death of Michael Brown.

"Our law enforcement officers do some of the most difficult, dangerous work in the community," he said. "And they deserve to have somebody who really understands what it means to put on body armor and wear a sidearm. Who understand what it means to step in the dark and do dangerous work."

Greitens signs one of his books for a supporter earlier this year.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum / St. Louis Public Radio

Hate him or love him

Greitens’ background and ideology attracted the support of some prominent Missouri political figures, such as Jeff Layman.

Layman is a financial adviser and a longtime behind-the-scenes player in Missouri politics. He met Greitens after the death of state Auditor Tom Schweich, and called him “obviously the most impressive candidate I’ve ever met – and I knew I had to get involved in helping him.”

“What makes Eric special is you just don’t see people who have the experience he does in real life,” said Layman, who is Greitens’ finance chairman. “I mean, look what he’s done. Whether it’s Duke University or the PhD from Oxford. The Rhodes scholar. The Navy SEAL. No matter what it may be, he’s done all that.

“He just has a world of experience – and he’s gotten real results,” he added. “He’s not a talker. He’s a doer.”

Former state Sen. John Lamping said Greitens has energized Missourians who “have never taken the time to get involved in politics.”

“They know something is wrong, something that’s not right,” Lamping said. “They’ve found someone that inspires them. And they’ve gotten involved in things they’ve never been involved in before. Clearly, we’re attracting a bigger group of people that we’ve ever attracted before. And Eric was the one person who didn’t have a track record to lay claim to, and yet he won the [GOP primary] by 10 points. It says that people are ready for a different type of leader.”

But while Greitens has attracted passionate supporters, he's also drawn fierce critics from both political parties.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster speaks to reporters at the St. Louis Police Officers Association hall in August. Koster received the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio

Among other things, Republican and Democratic adversaries chastised his propensity to take huge donations from out-of-state (and, at times, controversial) donors – and from PACs with mysterious contributors. Koster's campaign has lambasted Greitens for not releasing his tax returns – and for taking a salary while working at his veterans service organization the Mission Continues. (Greitens has strongly hit back at the second point, contending that his compensation was not excessive: “I feel like I was of tremendous service. And I am proud of every day that I served at the Mission Continues.”)

More than anything else, Koster, who famously switched political parties in 2007, lashed out at Greitens for being naïve about what it takes to be governor – and for insinuating that elected officials in general are corrupt.

“What we see among the outsiders is an expertise in accusations largely based on assertions of corruption that are unfounded,” Koster said earlier this year. “He did it to his own party. And I have no doubt he’s going to attempt it in the general election. But I don’t respect it.”

Koster isn’t the only person with doubts: Some Republican lawmakers are leery of Greitens for not engaging enough with groups that oppose abortion rights — and for casting state elected officials in a negative light. And Koster nabbed the endorsement of organizations that align with the GOP, such as the National Rifle Association and the Missouri Farm Bureau.

State Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, said Greitens has been underwhelming for social conservatives like himself who oppose abortion and oppose same-sex marriage. He cited Greitens’ opposition to SJR39 and his initial hesitancy to submit a survey to Missouri Right to Life.

“And I say to myself: ‘OK, well, he’s on our team.’ I’m not going vote against him,” Wieland said. “But I can’t get excited and say ‘I want to spend all my time, talent and treasure helping this guy get elected. Because it’s like ‘Eh, you know? Eh.’”

Catherine Hanaway looks on as Eric Greitens speaks at St. Louis Public Radio's GOP gubernatorial candidate debate. Hanaway has since enthusiastically backed Greitens' gubernatorial candidacy.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio

Greitens, who recently filled out a Missouri Right to Life survey, emphasized that it’s “important that we defend the lives of the unborn.” Citing his experience in refugee camps, Greitens said he’s “seen the tremendous power that comes when we make a commitment as leaders to treat every life with dignity.”

And some of Greitens’ former opponents in the GOP primary, like former U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway, are on board with his general election candidacy. She said Greitens is “going to accomplish what we all care about.”

“He’s going to bring jobs back to the state. He’s going to rid Jefferson City of corruption. And he’s going to take on those entrenched special interests that support liberal causes like trial lawyers or like labor unions,” Hanaway said. “That hasn’t been done in more than a generation. And it’s set our state back. So we need to rally behind him.”

National coattails

Greitens speaks at an event held in support of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio

The gubernatorial battle between Greitens and Koster is already the most expensive governor’s race in the country – and in Missouri history. And the national environment could be a key factor in determining the outcome.

Even if Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump prevails in Missouri, his presence at the top of the ticket may not be that helpful if his margin of victory is small. Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s campaign invested a (relatively small) amount of money to help candidates like Koster.

Greitens has campaigned with GOP vice presidential nominee and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Pence recorded a radio advertisement strongly backing Greitens’ campaign. He’s also tried to derisively link Koster to Clinton, though that strategy’s effectiveness may depend on how she does in Missouri.

In any case, Greitens said he’s confident that he’ll have robust support on Nov. 8 from both inside and outside his party.

“I’m very confident that we’re going to move forward with unified party, bringing Republicans and conservatives. And in this election also reaching out to independents and to Democrats who saying ‘we need to take this state in a new direction.”

Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter @jrosenbaum