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All eyes on former governor in Missouri Senate primary

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FILE - Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens speaks to reporters in Jefferson City, Mo., Feb. 22, 2022. Greitens is running for election to the U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/David A.
FILE - Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens speaks to reporters in Jefferson City, Mo., Feb. 22, 2022. Greitens is running for election to the U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/David A. Lieb, File) Photo Gallery

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens hopes to complete a stunning political comeback on Tuesday as voters narrow the field for a pivotal spot in the U.S. Senate.

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt’s announcement last year that he would not seek a third term set off a frenzy for his job, with nearly three dozen people in the two major parties filing to run. With control of the Senate at stake, Democrats are hoping to pick up what should be a safe seat in red-state Missouri.

Greitens, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler are seen as the leading contenders in the 21-person Republican field. Others include U.S. Rep. Billy Long and St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey, who gained notoriety in 2020 when he and his wife pointed guns at racial injustice protesters outside their home. Some Republican leaders worry that nominating the scandal-scarred Greitens could open the door for a Democrat to win in November.

The Democrats are led by 13-year Marine veteran Lucas Kunce, who has never held office but who has outraised everyone in both parties, and Trudy Busch Valentine, a philanthropist, retired nurse and an heiress to the Busch family beer fortune.

Election officials were projecting about one-third of the state’s registered voters to cast ballots. Early morning turnout was “a little lighter than we were expecting” in the state’s largest jurisdiction of St. Louis County, said Eric Fey, one of the election directors there. Absentee voting had been slower than anticipated in the Kansas City suburbs of Jackson County, said the county’s co-election director Sara Zorich.

Greitens, a former Navy SEAL officer and Rhodes scholar, had been governor for a year when in January 2018 he confirmed a TV report about a 2015 extramarital affair. He was subsequently charged with felony invasion of privacy for allegedly taking a nude photo of the woman and using it as blackmail to keep her quiet. That charge was dropped months later amid allegations that the chief investigator and local prosecutor mishandled the investigation.

Greitens, 48, says he was the victim of a political hit.

He also faced a second charge that year accusing him of illegally using a donor list from a charity he founded to raise money for his campaign. That charge was dropped when he resigned in June 2018 after the Missouri House began an impeachment investigation.

This year, Greitens’ ex-wife accused him of abuse in an affidavit in a child custody case. She cited one instance where Eric Greitens allegedly slapped their then-3-year-old son’s face and yanked him by the hair. In another, she accused him of pushing her to the ground.

Greitens denied the allegations and accused Sheena Greitens of colluding with Republican stalwarts such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to sabotage his campaign. Sheena Greitens said she worked with no one.

Greitens also drew criticism in June for a campaign video showing him brandishing a shotgun and declaring he’s hunting RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only, a term popularized by former President Donald Trump and his allies to deride moderate or establishment Republicans. Facebook pulled the ad.

Schmitt, 47, has gained attention for lawsuits that critics contend are politically motivated. He sued China over the coronavirus; school districts over mask mandates; and the city of St. Louis over its plan to provide $1 million for women travel out of state for abortions.

Hartzler, 61, is a former home economics teacher and state lawmaker first elected to Congress in 2010. She is a Trump supporter who voted against certifying results of the 2020 presidential election. Yet Trump went out of his way last month to say he won’t back Hartzler.

On Monday, Trump expressed support in a social media post for “ERIC,” presumably meaning either Schmitt or Greitens, without picking between them. There is a third Eric in the Republican primary, comedian and Navy veteran Eric McElroy.

“I trust the Great People of Missouri, on this one, to make up their own minds, much as they did when they gave me landslide victories in the 2016 and 2020 Elections, and I am therefore proud to announce that ERIC has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump wrote.

Political committees backing Greitens and Schmitt quickly cranked out election eve phone calls claiming Trump’s endorsement.

Kunce, 39, received his own big endorsement Monday — from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Kunce served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Senate candidate John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, Kunce is a populist hoping to win back rural voters. He wants to ban stock ownership for members of Congress, break up corporate monopolies and end foreign ownership of agricultural land. He said the government should spend money to rebuild the heartland, not to build up foreign countries.

Valentine, 65, is the daughter of August “Gussie” Busch Jr., the longtime chair and CEO of Anheuser-Busch who built the St. Louis-based brewery into the world’s largest beermaker. The brewery was sold to InBev in 2008. Valentine said she entered the race after witnessing the “division in our country and the vitriol in our politics.”

Winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries could face an independent candidate who already has significant financial support. John Wood, 52, a lifelong Republican, former U.S. attorney and most recently a top investigator for the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection has the backing of a political action committee led by former Republican Sen. John Danforth.

Salter reported from O’Fallon, Mo. Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed from Jefferson City, Missouri.

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