MARYLAND HEIGHTS • Sitting on what appears to be the biggest pile of campaign money in the Republican field, former Navy SEAL-turned-best-selling author Eric Greitens formally jumped into the 2016 race for Missouri governor on Saturday.
Introduced by fellow veterans and his kindergarten teacher, as well as former state treasurer and senator Sarah Steelman, Greitens announced his candidacy at a campaign event late morning at West Port Plaza.
To a crowd of supporters, Greitens, 41, painted himself as a political outsider with strong conservative credentials, anti-abortion and in favor of free enterprise and small government. If elected, Greitens, a graduate of Parkway North High School, said he would shake things up, weeding out corruption and banning gifts from lobbyists.
“I’m here because Missouri needs a conservative governor who will take on career politicians and do what’s right to get Missouri moving forward,” Greitens shouted.
His military experience was highlighted throughout the speech.
Greitens was introduced as a “conservative warrior,” and he talked of his entry into the Republican race as “not a campaign” but “a mission” to bring “an army of outsiders” who would disrupt business as usual in Jefferson City.
The song “The Outsiders” by country music singer Eric Church blared in the background.
“I have calluses on my hands from doing real work,” Greitens, a former boxer, said. “A lot of politicians have sharp tongues, but soft hands.”
A day before Greitens’ anticipated announcement, it had already shaken up the GOP primary race: One minor candidate, former state Rep. Randy Asbury, dropped out Friday; and one potentially major contender, businessman John Brunner, announced an early October date at which he is expected to officially jump in.
With those shifts, Republicans will be looking at a field of six formally announced candidates for the Aug. 2 Republican primary.
Candidates already in the race are former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway; Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder; state Sen. Bob Dixon; and state Rep. Bart Korman.
The only Democratic gubernatorial candidate is Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster.
Greitens’ campaign announcement comes as state records make it clear he has overtaken Hanaway in the money race, which until recently she had been leading.Complete campaign disclosure records for the current quarter aren’t available, but a Post-Dispatch analysis of the partial records indicates that Greitens is now sitting on about $2 million to Hanaway’s roughly $1.5 million.Koster, the Democrat, has more than $4 million available, according to estimates based on those records — more money, it appears, than all the Republican candidates combined.
But Brunner’s formal entry into the campaign, expected Oct. 5, could complicate the money race if he decides to self-finance as heavily as he did during his failed U.S. Senate run in 2012. Brunner spent $8 million of his own money to finish second in the GOP primary that year.
Greitens has raised much of his money from high-dollar, far-flung business supporters from outside Missouri — an issue that his primary opponents are likely to raise as the campaign heats up.
Asbury’s campaign had never generated much interest, and his departure Friday is unlikely to affect the support or strategy of the other candidates. Campaign finance records indicate he had raised less than $5,000, the lowest total in the field.
“We have no regrets but must bring the campaign to its end,” Asbury said in a statement. “This is not the end but a new beginning as God takes our efforts of the past few months and moves us into a new direction.”
A FORMER DEMOCRAT
Greitens is the author of philosophically themed self-help books with titles like “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life,” and “The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL.” He’s also the founder of The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization that links military veterans with community service work.If Greitens’ humanitarian-soldier story sounds incongruous, so is his political history. Though he’s never held elective office, he has been wooed before to campaign — by Democrats, who tried unsuccessfully to recruit him to run for a Missouri congressional seat in 2010.
Greitens confirmed in an essay this year that he used to be a Democrat. “As I got older, I no longer believed in their ideas,” he wrote. His name appeared on a list of supporters of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a Democrat, as recently as March 2013.
Greitens’ entry into the race sets up the unusual possibility of a 2016 general election fight in which the Democrat and the Republican are converts from each others’ parties. Koster, the attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, used to be a Republican.
For much of this year, Greitens has been campaigning — and prodigiously raising funds — under an “exploratory committee,” which has allowed him to avoid formally declaring his candidacy for governor. During that time, he has been publicly coy about his policy positions, with the campaign saying it would specify positions when he formally announced.
The campaign released a list of a positions last week in advance of Saturday’s announcement. Among his positions: “Defund Planned Parenthood,” “Protect our religious liberties,” “Sign right-to-work legislation” and “oppose tax increases.”
Brunner, the businessman, also is operating under an “exploratory committee” that doesn’t specify what he’s running for. But he has clearly been building for a gubernatorial campaign, raising funds, tweeting out campaign-esque comments and information and setting up a campaign logo that includes the words: “John Brunner, Governor.”
On Thursday evening, Brunner tweeted out a message that there will be a “VERY important announcement tomorrow.”
Then, early Friday, he tweeted, “On Oct. 5, I will make clear my intentions.”
Brunner’s announcement of a pending announcement appears to be a reminder that Republican voters should hold off on setting their allegiances because the field isn’t done growing.
Hanaway, a former House speaker and federal prosecutor, was the first candidate in the race, announcing in early February. She has staked out a campaign stance based on having political experience and a private-sector career in the law.
Kinder, the lieutenant governor, entered the race in July, citing in part the Feb. 26 suicide of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, whom Kinder had supported for governor. He is the only candidate in the field who has won statewide office. His campaign records indicate he has about $208,000 on hand.
The campaigns of Dixon and Korman have been largely invisible. Dixon has said religion turned him away from a previously gay lifestyle, and he is now campaigning on a platform of conservative family values. He had about $78,000 on hand.
Korman has said his gubernatorial filing was done to honor a late friend, and it’s unclear if he is actively campaigning. He has about $28,000 on hand.
‘I will defeat you’
On Saturday, Greitens said the political establishment in Missouri has “produced nothing for us but embarrassment and failure.”Again brandishing a tough guy image, he said, “I want to say now, to the corrupt insiders who have been working Jefferson City for decades to maximize their personal profit rather than to serve the people, your days are numbered!”Growing louder, he shouted, “I will defeat you, I will expose your lies, I will root out your corruption, and I will see you out of the people’s Capitol, even if in sight of the statue of Thomas Jefferson I have to throw you down the steps of the Capitol myself!”