Missouri’s GOP Senate primary as a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em, part two: The flop | Opinion

February 16, 2022 11:10 am

The flop – that is, candidate performance and events over the last five months since I assessed each starting hand — came 10s/7d/6d. What does this mean for each candidate? (Getty Images)

Back in September I asked: If each U.S. Senate primary candidate held a Texas Hold ‘Em starting hand, what would they be, and why?

Five months later, it’s time for an update. 

But first, the rules.

In Texas Hold ‘Em, two cards are dealt face down to each player, while five “community cards” are dealt face up in three stages — a group of three cards (“the flop”), then a single card (“the turn”) and a final card (“the river”). Players may bet at each stage, and the best five-card poker hand from any combination of a player’s hole cards and the community cards wins the pot.

The flop — that is, candidate performance and events over the last five months since I assessed each starting hand — came 10s/7d/6d (Ten of spades, seven of diamonds, six of diamonds).

What does this mean for each candidate?

The race’s newest entrant is Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, whose starting hand is 2-4 diamonds – suited gappers (suited cards separated by one number). It’s a weak hand, although it provides possibilities for a low straight or flush.

The flop doesn’t give Schatz much chance for a straight (he’d need perfect turn and river cards, and even if they came, he’d have the low end, which often loses to a higher straight).

Schatz did catch a possible flush draw as well, with two diamonds adding to his two in the hole. But this is a mirage, because if another player has a higher pair of diamonds (and as we will see, one does), a low flush would still lose.

Schatz starts with negligible name ID, and has barely registered in early polling. If he does get traction, his staunch support of last session’s gas tax could prove a liability.

The successful businessman’s primary advantage is the ability to self-fund. He already dropped a cool million into his account. But if you think the price of lumber and gas have risen, let me tell you about campaigns.

A million bucks used to be enough to fund a statewide primary. Now it’s barely even a down payment. When all is said and done — after the candidate committee, affiliated SuperPAC and third-party spending is tallied — the primary victor will likely spend well in excess of $5 million. So Schatz will need to dig much deeper to offset his deep polling deficit.

Eric Schmitt began with AK off-suit, a strong starting hand. 

Unfortunately, the 10-7-6 flop has failed to improve Schmitt’s hand. With no Ace or King, Schmitt has now fallen behind since he has no pair, and scant hopes for a straight.

What explains this?

First, Schmitt raised just $457,000, his weakest quarter yet, and spent almost all of it. After subtracting his debt and those donations that can only be used in the general election, Schmitt has just half a million dollars available for use in the primary. (He also has over $1 million in his affiliated SuperPAC, but cannot direct that money.)

The second reason is that after a year of high visibility (suing to overturn the 2020 election, suing the Chinese Communist Party for coronavirus, and suing every school district requiring masks], Schmitt has barely budged in the polls.

The final reason was Sen. Josh Hawley’s bombshell endorsement of Rep. Vicky Hartzler.

Hawley, at least among primary voters, is the state’s most popular Republican. 

While every sentient observer knew Hawley wouldn’t endorse arch-enemy Eric Greitens, it initially seemed as if Schmitt might emerge as the consensus Greitens alternative.

Hawley’s move makes clear that he believes Hartzler is best positioned to displace Greitens from pole position.

But remember: Schmitt still holds AK, so if either of those cards falls on the turn, he becomes the favorite. What might one of those cards be?

A Trump endorsement of Schmitt is one possibility.

The other possibility would be a massive pro-Schmitt expenditure from the Senate Leadership Fund, a Mitch McConnell-aligned SuperPAC that spent a quarter billion dollars to influence 2020 Senate elections. 

While McConnell clearly wants to defeat Greitens, both possibilities seem remote, which is why the flop hasn’t helped Schmitt.  

Schmitt did reply to the Hawley nod with one from Ted Cruz, with whom Schmitt shares a strategist (savvy strongman Jeff Roe). Though Schmitt’s allies claim Cruz polls as well as Hawley, I doubt Cruz will make campaign visits or do all the other things necessary to truly leverage an endorsement. He has no compelling reason to visit Missouri (not an early presidential primary state), and has far less at stake than Hawley. 

Schmitt is playing a weakening hand as best he can.

In September I suggested that Hartzler’s 9-10 suited wasn’t intimidating at first blush, but was full of possibility – decently high cards, possible flushes, straights or even a straight flush, which gave her significant upside potential.

Hartzler began to realize some of that potential in the last several months, smashing the flop with top pair as well as two diamonds, giving her a 35% shot at a flush. 

That reflects a five-month stretch during which rolled out two effective ads, increased her cash-on-hand lead (she has nearly $1.5 million of available general election cash on hand, far more than anyone in the race, with little debt), nabbed Hawley’s endorsement.

Back in September I suggested that by entering the race, McCloskey had “gone on tilt” – poker parlance for a state of agitation in which a player becomes hyper-aggressive and makes unwise bets. 

Only a miracle flop, I opined, could bail him out.

He didn’t get one.

The 10-7-6 flop didn’t give him a pair, nor did it provide any cards of the same suit as his J-4. Only a runner-runner 8-9 on the final two cards could help his hand. The odds of that are roughly 1 in 169, which are in my view his approximate odds of winning the primary.

The McCloskey novelty has faded and his campaign has become a circus act increasingly desperate for attention. While his remaining consultants will happily milk McCloskey for whatever money he can raise or donate, any unbiased observer would tell him to cut his losses and refrain from filing — just as the successful trial lawyer would advise a client in his position to settle.

Congressman Billy Long initially drew deuces — the lowest pocket pair, and one that rarely holds up, since the flop usually improves some other player’s hand and infrequently improves 22, except in the very unlikely (about 8%) case that another 2 falls to make a “set” of deuces.

In September I suggested that a Trump endorsement would be Long’s third deuce — his only shot at winning, as he began the race with little name ID and mediocre fundraising chops. 

Since then, Long’s odds of a Trump nod have dwindled.

If there is one thing that nearly everyone can agree on about Donald Trump, it’s that he demands loyalty but rarely offers it in return. The odds of Trump going out on a limb to endorse his pal while Long languishes 20-25 points down in the polls are about as good as the odds of Trump running into a burning building to save someone.

Former Gov. Eric Greitens started with the strongest hand — pocket nines. But there are only two more 9s in the deck, and Hartzler already holds one of them.  

The early Hawley endorsement may lead to some consolidation of the field, hurting Greitens, who polling indicates has a high floor (~25%) and low ceiling (~40%).

In other words, Greitens has a devoted base, but won’t attract many new voters.

That’s why consolidation would hurt Greitens. Starting with a solid floor of 25% and likely to pick up some others, he benefits if a crowded field splits the remaining votes. He suffers if people start dropping out and the race narrows to three.

Despite his polling lead, Greitens’ financial situation is abysmal. This is rare; typically, U.S. Senate frontrunners raise money with ease.

But nothing about Greitens’ candidacy is typical.

At this point, after his committee’s debt to outside vendors and the donations reserved for the general election are accounted for, Greitens’ committee has -$114,000 available for the primary.

You read that right: A consistent polling frontrunner for an open U.S. Senate seat is deep in debt.

On the other hand, his SuperPAC — whose spending he cannot legally influence — is flush, with over $3 million on hand.

Last August, I predicted that a divergence like this would tempt the candidate whose need for control is so intense that he allegedly taped a woman to workout equipment and blindfolded her. I also noted that such coordination constitutes a federal felony – a statute with which I am, unfortunately, all too familiar.

Notably, there is precedent for Greitens’ campaigns coordinating with third-party groups from which his campaign was supposed to remain aloof — as laid out in excruciating detail here, here, and here.

This time around, both his opponents and members of law enforcement from whose jaws he narrowly escaped in 2018 will likely be watching closely for signs of illegal coordination.

I previously opined that the race’s river card is a Trump endorsement.

Despite his recent adoption of a Trumpy rhetorical posture, Schmitt lacks deep personal connections to Trump and his inner circle, and isn’t banking on Trump’s endorsement.

Greitens, meanwhile, is pursuing it with an ardor usually associated with junior high puppy love.  

From hiring Kimberly Guilfoyle, to regurgitating the words “President Trump,” “MAGA” and “RINO” as if entranced during his constant appearances on Steve Bannon’s show, to spending far more time in Mar-A-Lago than Marshfield, Greitens is pulling out all the stops in his courtship. 

Is it working?

One view of Hawley’s endorsement of Hartzler is that Greitens’ courtship is failing, assuming that Hawley would want to avoid getting crossways with Trump.

An alternative view might be that Hawley fears a Trump endorsement of Greitens may loom, and so he wanted to get out in front of it by racing to endorse Hartzler so that he wouldn’t be frozen by Trump.

Time will tell. For now, we await the turn card.

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Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, which supports development of safe, affordable housing. Previously, he taught public policy at Dartmouth College and The New School, represented the city of St. Louis in the Senate, and wrote three books: Trading Places, on U.S. party alignment; Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, a memoir and argument for reform; and Ferguson in Black and White, an historical analysis of St. Louis inequality. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Washington University.