Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens looked right at home as he wandered the crowd of Republican activists and elected officials gathered at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Saturday.
Showing no signs that he just traveled thousands of miles back from a trade mission in Europe, Greitens shook nearly every hand in the room and introduced himself to anyone in his path.
“If there was anybody we didn’t get to talk to it was just because we ran out of time,” said Karen Fesler, a key organizer for Rick Santorum’s 2012 and 2016 Iowa Caucus campaigns. She escorted Greitens around Saturday’s event.
He finished the night with a speech touting his record as governor and urging the crowd to work hard to help re-elect Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Greitens also did something else on Saturday — he re-ignited the long-held view among many Missouri politicos that the first-term governor sees Jefferson City as a pit stop on a path to the White House.
“I told him when I asked him to come here that, ‘you do know the speculation will fly,’ ” Reynolds said in an interview with The Star.
Fesler told a reporter for Radio Iowa: “He’s in Iowa on a Saturday night. 2024 may not be as far away as we think.”
For many, the idea that someone who hasn’t even served a year in office could be maneuvering for a future White House bid might seem absurd.
But Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who never sought public office before last year, has a track record of upending the political narrative.
He overcame long odds to score a surprise victory in the GOP primary last summer. Then, with the help of Donald Trump’s 19-point win in Missouri, he bested a two-term Democratic attorney general who had received the endorsements of the National Rifle Association and the Missouri Farm Bureau.
“Among conservative groups around the country, people are paying attention,” said James Harris, a veteran Missouri political consultant. “They see in Gov. Greitens a young leader who is, if he chooses, destined for higher office.”
Greitens, 42, didn’t take questions from reporters at the Iowa event, and he didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Star.
But speculation about his ambition is nothing new, dating back eight years when Greitens reserved the website EricGreitensForPresident.com. He flirted with a life in politics off and on for years, first as a possible Democratic candidate for Congress in 2010, then finally in 2015 when he officially threw his hat in the ring for governor.
Greitens has long dismissed any assertion that he is fixated on a run for higher office, with his spokesman telling The Star earlier this year that he is “100 percent focused on serving the people of Missouri as governor.”
But his critics insist his actions demonstrate his priority isn’t being governor.
“Gov. Greitens promised to be an outsider, but has spent all his time in office outside of the state establishing himself as a self-serving politician,” said Stephen Webber, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.
Since taking office in January, he’s trekked to Washington, D.C., at least five times, including once to attend the glitzy Alfalfa Club dinner, a gala described by the Washington Post as “the most insidery bastion of inside Washington.”
He’s also traveled to Colorado, Rhode Island and Tennessee, and while he’s largely eschewed interviews with Missouri reporters, he’s a regular on Fox News.
Adding fuel to the speculation is Greitens’ political network.
His pool of donors stretches far beyond Missouri’s borders, thanks in part to his campaign’s use of a donor list acquired from a veteran’s charity he helped found called The Mission Continues.
Greitens’ main campaign strategist during the 2016 election was Nick Ayers, a longtime conservative consultant who currently serves as Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff. His main adviser is Austin Chambers, a 22-year-old Georgian considered Ayers’ protege.
Chambers accompanies Greitens on his out-of-state campaign events, runs Greitens’ controversial political nonprofit called A New Missouri and is a regular fixture in the governor’s office.
The connections to Pence sparked unsubstantiated gossip in Jefferson City earlier this year that if for some reason Trump didn’t run for re-election or didn’t finish his term, Greitens could be Pence’s running mate.
The perception that Greitens isn’t focused on Missouri has also contributed to some of his ongoing squabbles with state lawmakers.
While he was able to check off several high-profile legislative accomplishments this year, such as signing new regulations on abortions and a right-to-work law, he saw some of his signature campaign promises languish thanks to near constant run-ins with a handful of lawmakers – including some in his own party.
Greitens isn’t concerned with building a long-term relationship with the legislature, the thinking goes, because he doesn’t plan to stick around. Jefferson City is just a steppingstone to the next job.
“If Eric Greitens put as much time into governing as he does campaigning, he might actually be a good governor,” said state Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat.
Harris said that sort of criticism comes with the territory.
“I’m not surprised if the lobbyists and lawmakers complain,” Harris said.
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes U.S. Senate and governors races, said she doesn’t think anybody in the GOP is hot to challenge President Donald Trump in a primary in 2020, at least not openly.
Greitens’ travel likely has more to do with helping his fellow Republicans around the country capture or hold onto governor’s mansions.
“Basically for governors’ races in ’18, it’s all hands on deck when it comes to fund-raising, so that’s a lot of what he’s doing,” she said. “And just about every Republican governor is doing it, whether they’re aspiring to bigger things or not.”
But if Greitens does have dreams of living in the White House someday, “it’s never too early to make friends in Iowa.”
Craig Robinson, a Republican strategist and former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, said that if Greitens is thinking of a White House run, it probably wouldn’t be until after Trump leaves office.
“And frankly it doesn’t hurt for someone to just stick their toe in and get used to it,” Robinson said, referring to Greitens’ Iowa trip.
Gwen Ecklund, president of the Iowa Federation of Republican Women, said she’s been paying attention to Greitens since he took office and hopes to get him to come to an event for her organization.
Ecklund has been involved in Iowa politics for more than 35 years, and said she’s met plenty of presidential hopefuls. Greitens, she said, stacks up nicely.
“He has a very bright future,” she said. “It’s way too early to say anything else, but I’m excited for him.”
Fesler said Greitens, “has as good a chance as anyone if that’s what he wants to do (run for president).”
She later added: “Like we say in Iowa, the next presidential cycle starts the day after the election.”