Missouri Gov. Greitens banks on public backing in not resigning

Accused of sexual and political misconduct, Republican Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is defying calls to resign from top lawmakers in his own party while instead banking on steady support from the voters who backed his populist campaign against "corrupt insiders" and "career politicians."

Greitens' unwavering bravado toward state lawmakers who hold the power of impeachment may seem like a risky political strategy. But it also seems to be effective at shaping his image outside the Capitol, even as troubles keep mounting.

"I stand behind Governor Greitens ... 100%," retired nurse practitioner Lesley Hughes recently wrote on Greitens' Facebook page, where the governor sharply denounced a legislative report containing allegations that he threatened, slapped and restrained a woman during sexual encounters.

"I don't care if the report says that he's been accused of dancing naked on Kingshighway Boulevard at midnight with a llama, I don't care," Hughes, 70, of Farmington, told The Associated Press on Wednesday, referring to a busy St. Louis street. "It's all about due process."

That is precisely the message that Greitens has sought to convey.

Greitens, 44, faces a felony invasion-of-privacy charge for allegedly taking and transmitting a nonconsensual photo of a partially nude woman who testified that she was bound and blindfolded by Greitens during a sexual encounter in the basement of his St. Louis home in 2015. Greitens contends their extramarital affair was consensual and that jurors will acquit him of the charge. In public, he counts down the days to his May 14 trial.

But Greitens soon could face a second felony charge. Attorney General Josh Hawley, a fellow Republican also elected as a political outsider in 2016, suggested Tuesday that the St. Louis prosecutor could charge Greitens for taking a donor list without permission from a St. Louis-based veterans' charity Greitens founded and using it to raise money for his gubernatorial campaign.

Greitens' attorneys have asked a Cole County judge to bar the attorney general's office from investigating or prosecuting Greitens and instead appoint a special prosecutor. The court filing claims Hawley has a conflict of interest because he called for Greitens to resign after the release of the legislative report. Hawley said it's a "frivolous motion."

Hawley's investigation was the "critical turning point" for Republican Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, who added his name Tuesday evening to the ranks of those calling for Greitens' resignation. That list now also includes Republican House Speaker Todd Richardson, who appointed the special House investigatory panel that could recommend impeachment proceedings against Greitens.

Greitens reaffirmed that he won't resign — refusing to yield to the sort of public political pressure that has forced more than two dozen state and federal lawmakers out of office in the past 15 months after accusations of sexual misconduct.

"When somebody faces a fraction of this what they typically do is go ahead and step aside," said Jeremy Walling, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University. "But this just continues to snowball, and he just continues to cling to it and say, 'Nope, you're mistaken, these allegations are false.'"

One reason why Greitens may have no desire to heed lawmakers' resignation calls is that he has never had a very good relationship with them. His campaign against perceived corruption in Jefferson City irked many lawmakers. That relationship worsened when, as a new governor, Greitens publicly belittled some lawmakers for not voting the way he wanted.

"He doesn't know anything but attack," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, who has called for Greitens to resign.

Greitens' style is "very mission oriented," Kehoe said. "It's: I see where I want to get to and that's where I'm going, and if there's collateral damage along the way to get there that's fine."

Unlike other recent Missouri governors, Greitens never served in the Legislature or a statewide office. His path to political power came as a Navy SEAL officer, veterans' charity founder and motivational speaker. Not too long ago, he was a Democrat, and he never was deeply involved in the Republican Party before deciding to run for office.

Consequently, "I don't think he has an incentive to step down," Walling said. "He portrayed himself as being apart from them in the first place."

When the House investigatory committee released its report last week, Greitens asserted it was based on "lies and falsehoods" and portrayed himself as the victim of a "political witch hunt." He also took to social media to defend himself, his preferred method of communicating with supporters.

Greitens supporter Sharon Cavanaugh, a retiree from Tecumseh, said she thought the governor was becoming collateral damage in a flawed #MeToo movement that has brought public attention to alleged sexual misconduct by people in power. She said she was deeply distrustful of anything reported in the news media.

"I feel people are having their lives ruined by unproven facts and accusations," she wrote in a message to The Associated Press.