Eric Greitens has a resume so pristine, a political consultant couldn’t have dared to dream it up. He’s a navy SEAL, he worked in refugee camps, he published a coffee table book of photos of Third World kids, he’s a New York Times bestselling author, and he started a charity for veterans.
Just one slight issue: It’s 2016, and Greitens has the misfortune of running in the same party as a candidate who mocks veterans, demonizes refugees, shuns internationalism, and doesn’t read books.
Greitens is the Missouri Republican gubernatorial nominee, and his race––against the state’s attorney general, Chris Koster––is neck-and-neck.
And since his bio seems like it was practically designed to read like an indictment of Trump, Greitens has spent much of his time on the campaign trail learning how to change conversation topics.
It’s a campaign, by the way, that’s as close as anywhere––RealClearPolitics rates the race as a toss-up, and gives Greitens a teensy 0.5 percentage-point lead. His opponent led in all the public polls until the very end of October, and then Greitens nosed ahead. In a historically bizarre election, it’s anyone’s game.
And Greitens’ situation highlights an interesting conundrum for Republican contenders trying to campaign responsibly in the age of Trump. The mogul’s ascent has brought a new age of widespread credulousness regarding insane conspiracy theories, which means the town hall meetings that are a central feature of statewide races are constant peril.
As a candidate, do you shoot down conspiratorial questions and risk alienating the voters who ask them? Or do you cravenly entertain nonsense and hope for the best?
Thanks to lots of practice, Greitens has found a strategic way to navigate some of these queries. At a town hall campaign stop in Lebanon, Mo. on one bright October Saturday afternoon, the first question he was asked––after giving a stump speech about the importance of supporting our veterans and making government work better––was about what he would do to keep the Show Me State from falling to Shariah law.
Greitens didn’t flinch.
“There will be no Shariah law in Missouri,” he replied evenly. “I promise you that.”
An aide later explained that Greitens got a number of questions about Shariah law during the primary, but that they mostly petered off in the lead-up general.
I later asked Greitens if he feels a responsibility to debunk the conspiratorial concerns he hears. He replied that he saw an uptick in questions about those kind of issues after the shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino.
“People are really concerned about the willingness and ability of their leaders to protect them, both overseas and also at home,” he said.
And, he continued (after noting that he’s worked with Bosnian and Rwandan refugees), he believes concerns about the president’s refugee resettlement program are warranted.
“People are concerned rightly about Barack Obama’s complete failure to put in an adequate screening system for the refugees that are coming into the United States,” he said. “His own FBI director has said that there is no mechanism for them to do background checks on the people they’re admitting.”
It’s an argument Republicans have been making on the campaign trail for this entire cycle. But most of those Republicans haven’t actually worked with refugees.
Most of those Republicans also haven’t been lauded by the likes of Max Cleland, Star Wars reboot director J. J. Abrams, Martha Raddatz, David Gergen, and Admiral Mike Mullen––all of whom have blurbed his bestselling books. Abrams even called him “one of the greatest Americans of our time.”
That great American is now supporting Trump, though in a vaguely backhanded way. Discussing Trump’s history of misogynist comments with reporters after a campaign stop in the Lake of the Ozarks, he managed to pivot to his opponent. The Trump audio unearthed by the Washington Post in early October was “wrong and disgusting,” Greitens said. But it wasn’t enough to make him withdraw his support for the man.
“My position on the national race is I’m committed to defeating Hillary Clinton,” he said. “I don’t think we can have more crooked career politicians like Hillary Clinton or like Chris Koster here in Missouri, and that’s why I’m going to do my part here in Missouri to defeat Chris Koster.”
That doesn’t to say Greitens is never frank. At the Lebanon stop, he got a question that would have made some politicians uncomfortable.
“I joined the military when I was 17, back in 1971, and there’s one thing I really need to know,” the questioner said. “I’m a Christian, conservative, Republican. Are you?”
“You should know, sir, I’m Jewish,” Greitens replied. “My faith is really important to me. And it’s part of––I believe we all have to serve a purpose that’s higher than ourselves.”
The man interrupted.
“Well, when I say Christian, I mean do you believe in God.”
“Yes sir, I do,” Greitens replied. “Yes sir I do.”
“The religion part I don’t really care about,” he continued, “But what is your feelings on Convention of the States?”
And Greitens resumed his artful dodging.