Splintered GOP led to Trump victory in 2016. Greitens eying the same path in 2022

Former Gov. Eric Greitens speaks at the Macon County Lincoln Days dinner. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

Political scientists who study campaigns developed a concept called “coordination failure.” 

It describes the electoral problem of two or more similarly positioned candidates, who together would have plurality voter support, competing against an opposing candidate from a different ideological space. The latter candidate emerges victorious due to the splitting of votes between like candidates

The 2016 Republican presidential primary was a prototypical example. 

In September and November 2015, Republican leaders fretted about Donald Trump’s rise and huddled in back rooms devising schemes to stop him. By late February 2016, these officials were nearly frantic as Trump continued gathering steam. 

At one meeting of Republican governors, even Maine Gov. Paul LePage — then the nation’s Trumpiest governor — “erupted in frustration…(and) urged the governors to draft an open letter disavowing Mr. Trump and his divisive brand of politics.” 

But the plotting mostly remained in backrooms. Jeb! tried a direct hit on Trump, but as the embodiment of the old guard Republican establishment, he failed. Had Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, and others all simultaneously denounced Trump as unelectable and presented a similarly united front in the debates, would it have worked? Possibly.

Would it have worked had they all coalesced to support a single non-Trump candidate before the primaries started? Probably, because polling consistently showed that Trump had a ceiling of around 40% of primary voters.

But they did neither of those things. They watched those who stepped out to call Trump a charlatan, a fake conservative, and a megalomaniac — e.g., Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry — stagnate in polling and drop out.

And so instead, many of them formed a circular firing squad. Paul attacked Christie. Christie attacked Rubio. Rubio attacked Cruz. Cruz attacked Kasich. Kasich attacked Cruz.

They all assumed Trump would ultimately fade. Each hoped to be the last man standing, the “mainstream” alternative. Each time one dropped out, that candidate’s support splintered among the remaining candidates (including Trump), preventing an anti-Trump candidate from consolidating support among the 60% of Trump-skeptical and Never Trump primary voters.

Finally, when they realized Trump wasn’t fading, they engaged in a scattershot series of one-off attacks which reeked of desperation and mostly fell flat — and were simply too little, too late

—–

After Eric Greitens announced his U.S. Senate bid, national and state Republican officials immediately saw the disgraced ex-governor’s candidacy as a “clear and present danger” to their mission of retaining the seat, thanks to his voluminous baggage. 

A Republican-supermajority House investigative committee had determined, after interviewing numerous witnesses and reviewing audio and documentary evidence, that the then-governor physically assaulted his hairstylist, forced her to perform oral sex, blackmailed her and stole from the nonprofit organization he previously led.

Indeed, Republican leaders’ early conversations about how to stop him bore an uncanny resemblance to the frantic late 2015 plotting aimed at Trump.

Early Senate 2022 polling from Missouri Scout confirmed the similar context: like Trump throughout the 2016 primary, Greitens had a high floor (~30) and a low ceiling (~40), and was essentially tied in a heads-up matchup with Attorney General Eric Schmitt, but up by increasingly large margins when paired against additional opponents.

As with the 2016 presidential primary, the root of coordination failure here is that while the Republican Party’s chances in the general election seem to increase substantially with a two-person field, each potential candidate has their own calculation to make. 

And for most, there is more to gain than to lose by running.

Trial lawyer Mark McCloskey’s candidacy has potentially extended his 15 minutes of fame by another 15 months — not a bad deal, especially when you can get guileless grassroots donors to part with their hard-earned dollars to subsidize millions of dollars of name identification including a year’s worth of billboards that could be easily repurposed next fall from “McCloskey for U.S. Senate” to “Injured? Call McCloskey Law!”

With Greitens, Schmitt and McCloskey in — three St. Louis men, one a lifelong Democrat until a few years ago, the second a former center-right state senator and the third a significant donor to both Robin and Russ Carnahan as well as Claire McCaskill — a Vicki Hartzler candidacy became almost inevitable, given the wide-open niches available to her as a rural woman with a long history of staunch conservatism. 

For Billy Long – a Trump devotee who previously pledged to limit himself to 12 years in the House – an up-or-out move seems quite plausible.

For Ann Wagner, initially floated as a possible successor to Liz Cheney for the number three House Republican slot before New York’s Trump-adoring Rep. Elise Stefanik was selected, the path to House leadership is temporarily closed, increasing the relative attractiveness of a potential Senate bid.

Rep. Jason Smith is yet another possible candidate, and like Wagner, a prodigious fundraiser. Like the other members of Congress, he isn’t well-known statewide, but now that Missouri’s Republican center of gravity in the state is tilting towards Southeast Missouri given Trump’s huge margins there, it’s not hard to imagine a dollar-driven consultant convincing Smith that he could get to 25% and win a six-way primary. 

The point is that, for each serious candidate who decides to enter and will presumably garner at least 5-10%, it becomes that much easier for the next one to tell him or herself a story of how (s)he can reach a plurality – it’s always easier to figure out how to get to 25% than 35%, 40%, or especially, 51%.

The only factor working against bids by these members of Congress is the possibility of retaking the House, which history would favor. Is that enough to tempt them to stay put?

—–

A 2020 Missouri Ethics Commission ruling assessed Greitens the largest fine in Missouri political history

But no prominent Republicans said a peep as he absurdly declared himself “totally exonerated,” attempting to conflate the quotidian issues involved in the MEC case with the raft of more serious charges related to sexual assault, blackmail and pay-for-play.

Again, Greitens was following the playbook of Trump, who after his most recent impeachment acquittal declared himself “totally exonerated” despite the fact that his own attorneys’ principal defense was that it was too late to impeach him for his disgraceful Jan. 6 behavior since the Senate trial began after his term expired. 

The same dynamic as Trump’s 2016 primary is clearly at play. If the bundle of Missouri Senate candidates attacks each other in hopes of emerging as the mainstream alternative to Greitens, they may find themselves in the same shoes as Rubio, Christie and the other 2016 also-rans. 

Some Republican legislators clearly grasped the looming coordination problem, briefly exploring a possible solution of creating an initial primary and then a runoff for the top two vote-getters in the Senate race. The last-ditch effort fizzled in the final days of the session.

While Trump’s endorsement is sui generis, there are a few other people whose actions will help shape the race, most notably Mitch McConnell, Josh Hawley and Roy Blunt. 

McConnell won’t want Greitens – who most Missouri Republicans will tell you makes about as good of a teammate as Tonya Harding – in his caucus. 

Hawley won’t want the hyper-ambitious home-state archrival he shivved while Attorney General – and who memorably replied that “Fortunately, Josh is better at press conferences than the law” –  anywhere near the Senate, especially as Hawley explores a likely presidential bid. 

And Blunt won’t want his legacy tarnished by Greitens – whose style is the polar opposite of his own – occupying his seat.  

Will Hawley and Blunt, representing very different wings of the Republican Party, act decisively and in concert to signal Greitens’ unsuitability, or will they – along with the burgeoning 2022 field – remain as flummoxed as the 2016 Republican field was by Trump? 

This weekend’s Lincoln Days in Kansas City will give us the first hint of an answer.