ST. LOUIS • Missouri voters on Tuesday gave former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, a Republican, his newest mission — to be their next governor — elevating a political neophyte who argued that the political system could only be fixed by a “conservative outsider.”
Greitens’ victory, along with continued GOP control of the Legislature, virtually guarantees that Missouri soon will join the ranks of so-called “right-to-work” states, with laws that diminish the power of labor unions.
Despite pre-election polls showing a virtual tie, Greitens held a strong lead Tuesday night with most of the votes counted against Democratic nominee Chris Koster, currently Missouri’s attorney general.
“Tonight begins a new generation of conservative leadership here in Missouri,” Greitens told frenzied supporters at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Chesterfield shortly before 11 p.m., after getting Koster’s concession. “Tonight, we did more than win an election; we restored power to the people and we took our state back!”
Koster, facing his first expulsion from elective office in more than two decades, told a far more somber gathering of supporters at the Chase Park Plaza hotel in St. Louis: “I’m proud of the case we made for the people of Missouri.”
Greitens, 42, of St. Louis, will take office as Missouri’s 56th governor in January, succeeding two-term Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who was ousted by term limits.
Greitens, a Maryland Heights native and 1992 graduate of Parkway North High School, becomes Missouri’s first Jewish governor. He and his wife, Sheena Greitens, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri specializing in East Asian politics, have two young sons.
In Jefferson City, Greitens, a Democrat-turned-Republican, will face a Legislature controlled by his adopted party — but that doesn’t necessarily portend a smooth relationship. Greitens’ core campaign promise to “clean up” the Legislature with new ethics restrictions hasn’t exactly endeared him to its leaders.
It’s a promise he repeated to his supporters late Tuesday. “We’re going to take on the special interests and we’re going to clean up Jefferson City,” he vowed in his speech. He also promised to continue the state’s resistance to any expansion of Obamacare.
His supporters at the event almost drowned out his speech at times with their enthusiasm.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Catherine Hogan, 59, a veterinarian from Creve Coeur. “We need right-to-work in this state, we need people back to jobs, we need to get rid of Obamacare, which is destroying small businesses in this country and sending insurance sky high.”
Tuesday’s election ends a long, bitter race for governor that began in tragedy almost two years ago.
Missouri’s gubernatorial slog started in January 2015, with what looked to be a “normal” fight for the Republican nomination between two experienced mainstream politicians: former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway and state Auditor Tom Schweich.
But Schweich committed suicide on Feb. 26, 2015, after complaining bitterly about the alleged tactics of his fellow Republicans. The tragedy divided and rocked the party, ultimately setting up a four-way battle involving Hanaway, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, businessman John Brunner and Greitens.
Greitens came into the race with no political experience. But he owned an almost surreal personal résumé: former Navy SEAL, decorated combat veteran, humanitarian activist, Rhodes scholar, best-selling author and founder of the Mission Continues, a philanthropic organization for returning veterans who want to serve their communities.
Greitens used that “outsider” mantle to beat three more politically experienced opponents in the Aug. 2 Republican primary — in part with a nationally attention-getting television ad in which he fired a military-style assault rifle across a field to spark an explosion.
Along the way, Greitens created some friction with the state’s Republican establishment with his relentless portrayal of the Republican-controlled Legislature as a swamp of bad ethics. His top promise during the campaign was to “clean up” Jefferson City with a ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and restrictions on “revolving-door” lobbying contracts for ex-lawmakers.
But Greitens has also stressed his support for right-to-work legislation that would weaken labor unions and, proponents claim, improve the state’s business climate. Democrats say it’s anti-worker, and Nixon has blocked the Republican Legislature from getting it into statute. Republicans says it’s pro-business, and Greitens has vowed to sign it.
Koster’s journey to Tuesday’s election was as typical as Greitens’ was unusual — except for the fact that Koster, like Greitens, switched parties along the way. An attorney, former Cass County prosecutor and former state senator representing a region near Kansas City, Koster, 52, was a Republican until switching parties in 2007, prior to winning his first term as attorney general.
Koster supporter Rob Dean from Springfield, Mo., drove to St. Louis expecting a celebration Tuesday night. “I think there are a lot of people, like myself, that used to be Republicans who have stopped identifying with the party,” Dean said. “I don’t know that either of our presidential candidates can help put us back together, but I’m very, very confident that Chris Koster would have done that here.”
Ashley Jost and Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.