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

August 1, 2022 5:55 am

The final card – called the “river card” – in Missouri's U.S. Senate race is a king of clubs (Getty Images).

Back in September of 2021, I asked: If each U.S. Senate primary candidate held a Texas Hold ‘Em starting hand, what would they be, and why?

If you’re still following the series, then I assume you have some basic familiarity with poker.

This spring, I provided an update, with a column describing the flop — that is, events and candidate performance since the hand started. The flop was: Ten of spades, seven of diamonds, six of diamonds. Next came the “turn card” — a queen of hearts.

The final card – called the “river card” – is a king of clubs. That means the community cards are as follows:

10 of spades

7 of diamonds

6 of diamonds

Queen of hearts

King of clubs

The starting hands were:

Attorney General Eric Schmitt: Ace-King off-suit.

Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler: 9-10 diamonds.

Attorney Mark McCloskey: Jack-4 clubs

Congressman Billy Long: 22

Former Gov. Eric Greitens: 99

The river card – which represents the final set of events in the race – catapults Schmitt into a slim lead by giving him a pair of kings, just slightly better than Hartzler’s pair of 10s and Greitens’ pocket 9s. Now, just having the winning hand at the end doesn’t always mean you win. One could still misplay a hand and lose to someone bluffing. But Schmitt goes into the final round of betting with the best hand.  

So, why was the river card a king? What key factors have helped vault Schmitt into the lead?

The most significant factor has been massive independent expenditures from pro-Schmitt forces, most notably the anti-Greitens Show Me Values PAC. While many Republican party actors wrung their hands behind the scenes about the possibility of a Greitens nomination putting the seat in jeopardy, St. Louis megadonor Rex Sinquefield actually stepped up and seeded Show Me Values with a seven-figure check to torpedo his candidacy. 

Ultimately, over $25 million has been spent by third-party groups, with nearly $20 million of it funded by Schmitt allies. Around $8 million of that bought television, radio and digital advertising attacking Greitens, with another $4 million attacking Hartzler. An additional $7 million, purchased primarily by Schmitt-allied Americans for Prosperity, promoted Schmitt via mailers and grassroots canvassing.

Without the Show Me Values expenditure — which was executed with surgical precision — Greitens would’ve continued clinging to the lead he held for the first 15 months of the race. Critically, the PAC bought time not just on network television but also on conservative television and radio stations and right-wing social media outlets. This is important because much of Greitens’ mainstream media-hating base was hermetically sealed off from negative information about his previous scandals. 

He’d spent years leveraging select right-wing outlets to falsely claim “exoneration” due to St. Louis City prosecutor Kim Gardner’s mishandling of the initial case against him. Indeed, most Greitens backers only heard of his sundry scandals as filtered through the skepticism of friendly media figures like Steve Bannon, Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft or local conservative radio hosts like St. Louis’ Marc Cox or Kansas City’s Pete Mundo, on whose shows he portrayed himself as an “Ultra-MAGA” warrior against The Left, The Media and The RINOs.

Show Me Values PAC’s spending enabled Schmitt to avoid direct engagement of the volatile Greitens for almost the entire race and thus avoid being dragged down into the mud, which disadvantages candidates in crowded primaries where voters have several other “cleaner” choices. 

Greitens has complained about this and will surely complain more if he loses, but massive third-party spending was precisely how he emerged from the 2016 gubernatorial – the main difference being that he did so less transparently, via the use of dark-money 501(c)4 groups.

The second factor was Greitens’ continued refusal to engage with neutral media outlets or audiences to rebut the onslaught of allegations against him. Pete Buttigieg and Lis Smith taught candidates to “go everywhere,” and Pete’s verbal dexterity helped him effectively parry irreverent questions from podcasters and hostile questions from Fox News hosts.

Greitens, conversely, has gone almost nowhere (in Missouri) during the last four and a half years as an embattled governor, an ex-governor seeking rehabilitation and a Senate candidate. He refused to testify in his own impeachment trial. Refused to show up for the main candidate debate. Refused to testify publicly in his child custody case. Even developed a novel campaign strategy that took him across the country to Arizona, the Mexican border and Mar-a-Lago – anywhere to avoid unscripted interactions with actual Missouri voters.

It’s tough to brand yourself as The Fighter if you quit the governorship and then refuse to show up for the big fights.

Third, Schmitt’s communications team and spokespeople for allied groups deftly (and rather deceptively) depicted the race as a two-person race between Greitens and Schmitt. Insiders knew it wasn’t a two-person race. In fact, no one knew that better than Schmitt and his allies. Even as they publicly wrote Hartzler off, Schmitt-allied groups were spending millions attacking her. If she were truly a non-factor, they’d have ignored her.

But because Schmitt backer Rex Sinquefield was also the chief donor to Show Me Values, Schmitt – unlike Hartzler – could ascertain when the cavalry was coming in to eviscerate Greitens. This information asymmetry meant that Hartzler attacked Greitens on TV using valuable resources that might have otherwise been spent attacking Schmitt on his prime vulnerability, the legislation he sponsored to create a cargo hub for Chinese-manufactured goods at the St. Louis Airport. 

Hartzler’s other option might have been to try and take out Greitens early in rural Missouri in order to emerge as the last candidate standing against Schmitt, but with limited resources and a lightly-funded allied PAC, she understandably figured she lacked the firepower to wound him fatally – especially given his resilience for the first year of the race. 

Also related — because like the communications strategy, it helped create an image of Schmitt as frontrunner during the crucial month of July — was the polling of contested open state Senate seat primaries by a polling firm affiliated with Schmitt’s top strategist. 

Due to this cycle’s state Senate map, a disproportionate number of the races polled covered the St. Louis exurbs where Schmitt is strongest, whereas only one primary was polled in southern or west-central Missouri, Hartzler bastions due to her status as the only major U.S. Senate candidate from rural Missouri. 

The repeated publication of U.S. Senate polling in areas favorable to Schmitt fed perceptions that Schmitt was emerging as a frontrunner, perhaps helping prevent Trump from endorsing Greitens.    


A fourth factor was a dog that didn’t bark: Josh Hawley’s endorsement turned out to be far less consequential than initially anticipated. That’s because endorsements aren’t magic. They’re only worth what the endorser puts into them.

Like him or not, Hawley’s infamous Jan. 6 fist pump earned him two things: A national low-dollar donor base and the kind of national visibility that afforded greater access to some of the Republican Party’s biggest donors.

And yet, despite having methodically cultivated a huge email list in preparation for a national run, I can find evidence of only one Hawley email soliciting donations for Hartzler (a portion of which went to Hawley’s own PAC) – and no evidence of any Hawley megadonors making significant donations to Hartzler’s allied PAC.

Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, did more events for Schmitt (3) than Hawley did for Hartzler (2) in the race’s final month. A Schmitt victory may be even more galling to Hawley given that a) Cruz – like Hawley – is a probable future presidential candidate, b) Cruz recently laughed at the viral video of Hawley fleeing the Jan. 6 rioters, and c) Cruz may end up beating Hawley by proxy despite representing a state whose capital is nearly 1,000 miles away from Missouri’s.

Apparently, once Show Me Values began doing real damage on Greitens and polling suggested a race between Schmitt and Hartzer, Hawley’s motivation waned. He’d accomplished his real goal of defeating Greitens, and a cost-benefit analysis weighed against overexertion on Hartzler’s behalf.

A final and critical component of the river card was Trump’s July 15th TruthSocial post denigrating Hartzler. During their phone call that morning when Trump pressed for Hartzler to disavow her condemnation of his behavior on Jan. 6, she pivoted by replying that she would support his America First policies. That response displeased Trump – still feverishly relitigating the 2020 election – and he abruptly ended the call. His TruthSocial post appeared later that day.

If Hartzler loses, she may come to view that call – and the attempt to seek a Trump endorsement that would never come without going full Election Denier – as a tactical error. But while she may not become a United States senator, her decision not to capitulate is telling.

James Weldon Johnson’s brilliant “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” (1905) is narrated by the protagonist, a light-skinned black man with a unique ability to transcend cultural boundaries who leaves the Jim Crow South for New York. He prospers financially by passing as a white man, but after surveying the period’s distinguished black leaders like Frederick Douglass, he cannot shake a nagging feeling. 

“I cannot repress the thought,” says the narrator as the book closes, “that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”

The reference is to Esau, the Biblical character who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup (in Genesis 25). Though materially successful and liberated from the repressive Jim Crow South, the book’s protagonist remains unable to find meaning, choosing self-interest over personal truth and societal purpose.

And so, win or lose, at least Hartzler appears to have remained true to herself.

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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.