The site of one of 2018's most anticipated Senate races was hit with a political earthquake in the year's opening days.
On Jan. 10, Missouri's Republican governor Eric Greitens admitted to an extramarital affair he had with his hairdresser in 2015. The admission came after the hairdresser's ex-husband gave a local news station a recording he secretly made of his then-wife to prove Greitens blackmailed her by taking a picture of her blindfolded with her hands bound to exercise rings. The woman, who divorced her husband in 2016, is not speaking with the press. The man says he came forward with the recording because Greitens destroyed his marriage.
There were immediate calls for Greitens to resign in the state legislature by Democrats and some Republicans—"stick a fork in him," said one—but it is becoming increasingly clear that he isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
This past weekend in his first interview since the scandal broke, Greitens said the story has been driven by "rumors and falsehoods." He again admitted to the affair, but said it was a "consensual relationship" with "no blackmail" and "no violence." His office has blamed "fake news from CNN" for reports that the FBI has opened an inquiry into Greitens, saying the bureau has not contacted anybody and called into question the source of CNN's report, which Greitens's lawyer has said should be retracted. Greitens and his wife Sheena say they dealt with the "deeply personal mistake" he made "privately and honestly." She has asked "the media and those who wish to peddle gossip to stay away from me and my children."
In most cases, a scandal as juicy as this would be a disaster for Republicans like Josh Hawley, an ascending state politician in the midst of a campaign to unseat two-term incumbent senator Claire McCaskill.
"It's never a good thing when the incumbent governor of your party is mired in scandal. It taints anybody with the letter R on the ballot, at least a little," said Larry Sabato, a political prognosticator who currently rates the Missouri race as a "toss-up."
Greitens, however, is not exactly the standard-bearer for Missouri Republicans. He ran for governor in 2016 as an "outsider" who would "take Missouri back from the corrupt insiders" in the state legislature. In his first months as governor he aired attack ads against Republicans such as Rob Schaaf, who, unsurprisingly, was the guy recommending sticking the fork in Greitens.
"Greitens has an R next to his name but the hidden word there is ‘outsider,'" Sabato said. "I'd expect Hawley to be seen as credible when he says, ‘That's the governor's problem.' He can express his distaste and move on."
Sabato added that Hawley's ability to move on could depend on whether McCaskill, who has thus far been quiet on Greitens, demands Hawley take a stand on whether or not he should resign.
Neither the McCaskill campaign nor the Missouri Democratic Party responded to requests for an interview on whether they plan to enter the Greitens scandal into the Senate race.
Hawley's comments on the scandal have thus far been limited, partly due to his role as state attorney general and his active investigation into Greitens's deletion of text messages with his staff. Hawley said he hopes the governor will be "honest and forthright" about investigations.
"Of course, our hearts go out to everyone who was affected by the affair," Hawley said. "However, as a law enforcement official myself, I don't want to comment on anything that could have an impact on the investigations."
Connecting Hawley to Greitens won't be a simple task for Democrats, if they choose to attempt it.
Republican strategists characterize the relationship between Greitens and Hawley as a rivalry between two young politicians with sparkling résumés and national potential who work together fine but don't always get along.
Both Greitens, a 43-year-old Navy SEAL and Rhodes Scholar, and Hawley, a 38-year-old who clerked for Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts, entered the political arena with statewide election victories in 2016, but they ran separately and fared differently in the ballot box.
"Hawley ran a long way ahead of both Greitens and Trump in 2016. He got more votes than any Republican on the ballot," said one Republican operative in the state, who believes the scandal would have limited impact on the Senate race. "He runs separate and apart from these folks."
"Senate races make their own weather," the operative said. "It's a whole different ball game, with its own variables."
A source close to Greitens says he hasn't spent much time making "political calculations."
"I don’t think, given how personal of a situation this is and how hurtful the false rumors have been for Greitens and his wife, that there has been too much time to make a lot of political calculations," said the source. "I think the governor is going to come out of this in a strong position, and don't see this having a major political impact down the road. He’s going to keep doing good work and getting results and most Missourians will see the rest of this as a personal matter."
Other Republican operatives in Missouri say a lot remains to be seen regarding how the scandal develops, but that thus far there has been no indication Republicans will suffer due to the Greitens affair.
"I have seen no data point either private or public that indicates the governor will have any negative effect on Republican candidates in November," said a Missouri Republican. "Anybody that says differently is either guessing or wishing."
Polling data shared with the Washington Free Beacon shows that Greitens's favorability actually ticked up slightly from Jan. 15 to Jan. 18, though the improved figure still had the governor underwater with 34 percent viewing him favorably and 46 percent unfavorably. Only 35 percent of voters say Greitens should resign, compared with 46 percent who think he should stay in office.
Ed Martin, a former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party who called on Greitens to resign last week, said, "Greitens is a drain on all Republicans" and predicted that McCaskill is waiting for the "right time" to make an issue of the scandal.
"Claire knows to let a drowning man drown," Martin said. "If she attacks Greitens and asks Hawley to do so, Hawley might join and get away from Greitens."
"At the right time, Claire or the dark money for her will make the point," Martin said.
McCaskill has proven to be a shrewd political opportunist in the past. In her book Plenty Ladylike, McCaskill disclosed how her 2012 reelection campaign spent $1.7 million boosting the candidacy of Republican Todd Akin after she deemed him the candidate she was "most likely to beat."
"We spent more money for Todd Akin in the last two weeks of the primary than he spent on his whole primary campaign," she admitted.
The gamble paid off. McCaskill, once considered a long shot to hold her seat, wound up cruising to 16-point win after Akin said pregnancies don't result from "legitimate rape."
This time, Missouri Republicans cleared the way for Hawley, who was widely viewed as the candidate with the strongest chance to unseat McCaskill.
Republicans are hopeful that this election remains a referendum on McCaskill, whose approval rating is among the lowest of any senator up for reelection this year.
"This is a referendum on McCaskill," said a Missouri Republican. "I think voters are going to send her home based on her record and elect Hawley."