Missouri’s GOP Senate primary as a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em, part three: The turn

July 12, 2022 10:07 am

The turn was a queen of hearts. 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?

As a refresher, 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 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.

Five months later, I provided an update, with a column describing the flop — that is, events and candidate performance since I surveyed each starting hand. 

The flop was: Ten of spades, seven of diamonds, six of diamonds.

Today, with apologies to Juice Newton, comes the “turn card” — a queen of hearts.

As we’ll see in analyzing each candidates’ hand, this card means no one has a flush or a straight yet, and many possible “river cards” would vault Attorney General Eric Schmitt ahead of Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler’s leading pair of 10s, since an ace, king or queen of any suit besides diamonds would give the race to Schmitt. Further, any 8 or 9 would give the hand to Greitens, or the sole remaining 2 in the deck would give the hand to Billy Long.

What events in the race constituted the turn? What events could constitute the river? And what does it all mean for each candidate?

Eric Greitens (Starting hand: Pocket 9s)

Greitens started in the lead (with his high pocket pair) and remains bunched near the front of the pack alongside Schmitt and Hartzler. But in my view, he is now a slight underdog to both of them. As mentioned, any one of the four 8s left in the deck would give Greitens the straight, and the remaining nine would give him three of a kind — so there are five winning river cards in the deck for him.

The race’s narrative has centered on Greitens.

Will he survive all of his scandals, now that his ex-wife is flinging child abuse allegations in sworn affidavits to which he’ll only respond on Twitter or alt-right media (where truth is relative)? Will voters consolidate behind one main opponent, which would be a death knell for Greitens, who appears to have a ceiling around 30%? And will his assiduous courtship of Trump pan out?

I initially contended that Greitens, who began the race with near-universal name identification, had nowhere to go but down. Few undecided voters, I argued, were seeking just a bit more information on what exactly happened in his basement, or the precise number of affairs he had, before deciding whether to back him. Yes, his base was firmer than any other candidate’s, but he also had less room to grow.

Greitens has a knack for stealing the spotlight. From attention-grabbing trips everywhere from Mar-a-Lago to the Arizona recount, from the Mexican border to a vanity track meet in Finland (where he finished 22nd out of 25 runners), and of course the mega-viral video depicting himself “RINO-hunting”, Greitens has meticulously pressed every right-wing hot button.

But the free ride he’s gotten for most of the race — largely due to the reluctance of his male opponents to attack him — has finally ended.

And now, for the race’s final three weeks, he’ll face significant headwinds.

First, an independent group (Show Me Values) has started a multi-million dollar negative ad campaign targeting Greitens. Their first ads went up two weeks ago and early indications suggest they are having an impact. Greitens has decried the ads, but turnabout is fair play: A similar last-minute multi-million dollar independent expenditure by a Greitens-affiliated PAC was the key to Greitens’ 2016 primary victory.  

Second, Greitens has a pending child custody battle with his ex-wife, and is scheduled to submit a sworn statement this Friday. In response to her ex-husband’s persistent attempts to stall the case until after the election, as well as his wild accusations about her mental health, Sheena Greitens has deftly dribbled out damaging disclosures over the course of 2022 in sworn statements, notably, while Eric turns to Steve Bannon’s show, where false claims are more of an admission fee than a disqualifier.

If he submits a sworn statement to the court this week refuting Sheena’s previous submission, she could respond with photographic evidence documenting her most shocking allegation yet: That Greitens struck their young son in the face, causing significant bleeding and the surgical removal of a tooth.

Third, national media are pursuing additional Greitens scandals that either did not surface during the impeachment investigation, or hung in the balance when he resigned. It is unclear exactly what will make it to print over the next few weeks, but there is rarely just one cockroach behind the floorboards. We’ve already seen a cascading series of scandals, and there’s no reason to believe we’ve seen the last.

Again, Greitens’ base has hung with him through thick and thin, so new scandals are unlikely to peel off many of his committed voters. “That’s just the establishment coming after him,” they are conditioned to say, or for the more conspiracy-minded, “the pictures are doctored!” However, sordid new revelations could prevent him from driving a positive message through to undecided voters in the closing weeks, especially with the well-resourced Show Me Values PAC potentially amplifying any lurid new information.

Critically, the PAC is buying ad time on conservative television and radio stations as well as making buys on right-wing social media outlets. This is important because much of Greitens’ base has received little information about his previous scandals, since they disregard the mainstream media; he has leveraged select right-wing media outlets to claim “exoneration” due to St. Louis City prosecutor Kim Gardner’s mishandling of the initial invasion of privacy case against him. 

Vicky Hartzler (Starting hand: 9-10 of diamonds)

My view of Hartzler’s chances diverges sharply from the conventional wisdom (as implied by’s betting odds). Though she polled in single digits at the outset, I saw her as the candidate with the most upside potential, and now see her with a narrow but shaky edge (thus her pair of 10s edging Greitens’ 9s), although Schmitt has tons of “outs” (winning river cards), as discussed below, and Greitens has several outs as well.

Hartzler had a strong June, receiving an endorsement from the influential Missouri Farm Bureau and traveling the state alongside Sen. Josh Hawley for a series of fundraisers. As the least well-known of the three leading candidates, she has the best chance to make inroads with undecided voters. Also, women typically comprise a disproportionate share of late-breaking voters, which could advantage her as the race’s sole woman.

Currently, though, Hartzler is reeling from Trump’s social media snub in which he asserted, after a recent conversation with her, that she doesn’t “have what it takes” to fight the left. Her path to victory immediately became more difficult.

The question remains: How committed to Hartzler is Josh Hawley? Will Missouri’s most popular Republican now redouble his efforts to elect Hartzler, or will his fealty fade following Trump’s harsh words about his candidate?

Hawley would have more to lose than anyone (with the possible exception of Mitch McConnell) from Greitens’s nomination. In the near term, he’d be between a rock and a hard place: He can’t endorse the Democratic Senate candidate, but he can’t very well endorse Greitens either after having called him a criminal who is unfit for office.

The longer term is even more complicated. Hawley tops Greitens’s enemies list — the former Attorney General’s statement that Greitens’s misconduct warranted a felony charge was the straw that broke the governor’s back. And if I know anything about Greitens, a Sen. Greitens  would repay the favor by prioritizing efforts to thwart Hawley’s presidential ambitions.

So, while it’s clear that Hawley should pull out all the stops to elect Hartzler, we now know that doing so would require crossing Trump. Does Hawley have the guts and the grit to do whatever it takes — persuading his wealthiest donors to dig deep, and then barnstorming the state for Hartzler for the next three weeks — to defeat Trump’s favored candidate? 

If I were Vicky, I’d say: Josh, Don’t do this for me. Do it for yourself

Eric Schmitt (Starting hand: Ace-king off-suit)

Schmitt is not exactly ahead in the hand, but as referenced earlier, he has tons of outs (paths to victory). There are three aces, three kings and three queens left in the deck, and if an ace or king falls, Schmitt has the top pair. If a jack falls, he makes his nut straight and wins. So, 1/4 of the 36 remaining cards give Schmitt the win.

Schmitt, who has polled around the low 20s for over a year, and a PAC supporting his campaign have spent more money on television ads than anyone in the race. If Trump endorses Greitens, I have a hard time seeing how Schmitt wins, especially given the lengths that the Trump-ified Schmitt has gone to in pursuit of the endorsement.

But Schmitt’s former fellow attorney general from Florida, Pam Bondi, has close ties to Trump himself and is apparently pushing for an endorsement. Will it be enough to overcome Greitens’s ties to Trumpworld (most notably, Donald Trump Jr.’s fiancé Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is Greitens’s campaign chairwoman)?

In most cases, such a close family connection to a candidate would all but assure an endorsement. But Greitens has unique baggage, and the Trump family has unique dynamics, with Trump no fan of his future daughter-in-law, according to reports. So, we shall see.

Dave Schatz (Starting hand: 2-4 diamonds) 

Despite, or perhaps because, he’s been the one candidate eschewing gaudy rhetoric for common sense, I previously predicted Schatz’s path was narrow. But unless he’s prepared to part with his children’s entire inheritance — which, like any good patriarch, he is not — that path has now closed. With the queen of hearts being no help on the turn, there is no longer a river card that could help Schatz, as any remaining diamond merely gives Hartzler a higher flush.

Mark McCloskey – (Starting hand: J-4 spades)

My initial prediction was that McCloskey was on tilt by even running. That prediction was correct: A jack falling on the river would give Schmitt his straight, a 4 falling isn’t enough to beat higher pairs, and a flush is impossible. Not even Saundra McDowell’s tireless boosterism can give this vanity candidate a shot at victory.

Billy Long – (Starting hand: Pocket 2s)

Long remains the longest of long shots, as initially suggested by his low pocket pair (versus Greitens’ higher pocket pair, and Schatz holding one of the two remaining 2s). Billy has a one in 36 chance of river-ing the case 2 — roughly the odds of Trump endorsing him.

The only imaginable scenario for this would be a massive Hail Mary involving a Jan. 6 calculation. As the dominoes continue to fall with Pat Cipollone and other Trump intimates now testifying or preparing to testify before the House committee — and Liz Cheney suggesting a possible criminal referral for Trump-inspired witness tampering — a Long endorsement could be a mechanism for Trump to signal potential witnesses that he’ll remain loyal to his old friends, since unlike both Eric-come-latelys, Billy was the first one aboard the Trump Train.

Of course, loyalty has traditionally been a one-way street for the former president.

The River Card

With debates looking unlikely, there are only a few possible major events (which will comprise the river) remaining in the race.

The most obvious would be Trump’s endorsement. However, he may be too preoccupied with his various legal challenges, or too conflicted about choosing among one old friend plus two new allies — all of whom have surrounded themselves with key figures from Trump’s inner circle — to endorse.

Obviously the primary beneficiary of a non-endorsement would be Hartzler (since she’s already been ruled out).

A Schmitt endorsement all but guarantees a Schmitt victory. And a Greitens endorsement vaults him back into pole position.

A second event that could have a significant impact would be Sheena Greitens dropping pictures documenting her ex-husband’s child abuse.

And a third could be a viral candidate gaffe. But without a major debate (Greitens refuses to share the stage with his opponents unless the playing field is rigged in his favor), that looks unlikely.   

And remember, it is possible that no major event occurs, or that an event occurs which immediately seems significant, but quickly fades.

For instance, it was a wall-to-wall national story last month when former Sen. Jack Danforth announced that he would raise and spend $20 million on behalf of an independent candidate who just rented an apartment here the other day. January 6th prosecutor John Wood appears to be a fine and accomplished man, but as of this writing, his best chance of winning would require a meteor to hit a debate stage containing the major party nominees. 

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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.