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What Eric Greitens’s “RINO hunting” ad means for the Missouri Senate race

Will his violent campaign ad come back to haunt him?

Then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens addresses a crowd in University City, Missouri, on February 22, 2017.
Michael Thomas/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Repeatedly, Republicans have raced one another to the right in an effort to win their 2022 primaries, contests in which pandering to the activist base is often seen as a strategy for success. Republican Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens has taken that to an extreme.

On Monday, the former Missouri governor — who resigned in 2018 amid sexual assault allegations as well as felony charges of invasion of privacy and campaign-related offenses — released a campaign ad in which he called for voters to take up arms and “hunt down” RINOs, or Republicans in name only. Holding a shotgun alongside a team in tactical gear, he says, “Join the MAGA crew. Get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.”

The ad, which has since been removed from Facebook and hidden with a warning on Twitter, drew condemnation from both Democrats and some Republicans, largely former lawmakers and current officeholders who have distanced themselves from former President Donald Trump. They warned that it’s the same kind of rhetoric that incited the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and that has made Trump and his allies a “clear and present danger to American democracy,” as J. Michael Luttig, a former federal judge venerated by conservatives, said during a recent congressional hearing.

“Every Republican should denounce this sick and dangerous ad from Eric Greitens,” Barbara Comstock, a former Republican Congress member from Virginia, told the New York Times on Monday. “This is just a taste of the ‘clear and present danger’ that Judge Luttig talked about last week.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who has been labeled a RINO for criticizing Trump, was more succinct, tweeting, “You’re a very bad man.”

Greitens said in a radio interview on KCMO Tuesday morning that his critics took the ad too seriously and that it was merely meant to demonstrate that he, a former Democrat, is the true conservative in his primary.

“It is entertaining to watch the full outrage of all of the liberal and RINO snowflakes around the country and around the state,” he said. “The people who are most upset by this are the RINOs. They’re the ones who came out right from the beginning and joined forces, as they’ve always done, with the mainstream media to come out and to attack us.”

But it’s hard to take the ad as a joke in an age of rising political violence. In 2021, threats against members of Congress more than doubled over the previous year, according to US Capitol Police. And just on Sunday, Kinzinger — who was among 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump and is a member of the House committee investigating January 6 — shared on Twitter a death threat that was addressed to his wife.

Greitens leads his race but faced a lot of criticism, even before the ad

The ad comes at a point in the race where Greitens is leading the field and likely to become the GOP nominee, despite local and national party leaders’ concerns that he is too polarizing to win the general election.

The widespread outrage over the ad may well end up playing into Greitens’s hands as he courts GOP primary voters, who are typically more zealously right-wing than the average Republican. In less than 24 hours, it had been viewed over 3.5 million times. So far, he’s been the frontrunner in his primary, even after his ex-wife accused him in March of abusing her and their children. On average, about 24.8 percent of likely voters have supported him in recent polls. His next most popular Republican opponent, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, averages 21.3 percent support.

Trump has yet to endorse any candidate ahead of the August 2 primary. Like Greitens, Schmitt, who has been endorsed by Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, has sought to paint himself as a pro-Trump candidate.

A number of national Republicans publicly expressed reservations about Greitens’s candidacy, even before Monday’s ad. Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) had even called for him to drop out given the family abuse allegations against him. The ad may have been an attempt to deflect some of that criticism.

How the outrage over the ad could change the race

While it’s possible the ad will deliver a certain segment of primary voters to Greitens, it could be an impetus for other viable challengers to enter the Senate race, which is one of the GOP’s top targets as it attempts to gain control of the chamber.

A group of high-profile Missouri Republicans is pushing John F. Wood, senior counsel on the House January 6 committee, to run as an independent, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Among that group is former US Sen. Jack Danforth, who told the paper that Wood would “provide Missouri voters a principled, traditional conservative choice for the United States Senate this year.” Wood has yet to indicate whether he will run. But he would still need to file with the Federal Election Commission to start raising campaign funds and to collect signatures to get on the ballot in November.

Danforth has said that he believes an independent candidate would have a good chance of winning the general election based on polling he commissioned through his super PAC, Missouri Stands United. There’s a risk that the plan might ultimately hurt Republicans if it ends up splitting the GOP vote, however, allowing a Democrat to cruise to victory. But if the GOP’s only option is the scandal-burdened Greitens, their chances of winning the seat might also be slim.

Due to the abuse allegations against him, Greitens is seen as the easiest opponent for Lucas Kunce, the frontrunner among Greitens’s Democratic opponents, to defeat in a general election. Kunce has previously called for Greitens to exit the race, and said he hopes that the ad will also mobilize the left to do more to condemn violent language from Republicans.

“All too often, this kind of violent rhetoric by criminal candidates like Eric Greitens goes unanswered,” said Connor Lounsbury, Kunce’s deputy campaign manager. “We need Democrats who are willing not just to stand up for our values, but to actually fight for them.”

And it’s not just Greitens; just this weekend, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), chair of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, said in a speech that the “militant left wing in our country has become the enemy within.”

Republicans might try to pass off that kind of rhetoric targeting dissenters, at times in violent terms, as mere metaphor. But as the Capital riot and the rising threats made against political officials — from Kinzinger to the election workers who testified before Congress about threats they’ve faced on Tuesday — show, inciting political violence is a real concern.

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