Five things I got wrong in 2022 — and what (if anything) my mistakes mean for 2024
Columnist Jeff Smith looks back at his biggest misfires (Getty Images).
Political prognosticators fill thousands of column inches and hours of airtime making predictions, and love to say “I told you so” when they’re right.
It would be helpful if more pundits stepped up to confess – and reckon with – their misfires.
In that vein, here are five of my mistaken predictions from the 2022 cycle.
Mistake #1: I overestimated the importance of Josh Hawley’s support of Vicky Hartzler
In my initial assessment of the 2022 U.S. Senate race, I predicted Vicky Hartzler had more upside potential than any candidate in the race. I thought she might stand out as a plainspoken, humble woman in a field of bombastic and unhinged men.
Sen. Josh Hawley appeared to agree, endorsing Hartzler in early 2022.
I made three erroneous assumptions related to this endorsement.
First, I assumed the endorsement was the product of meticulous research showing Hartzler would be the clear favorite of non-Greitens voters. I didn’t think Hawley would jump out to make such a dramatic public endorsement against his successor in the attorney general’s office without ample data suggesting Hartzler was best equipped to defeat Greitens.
Second, I assumed that based on Hawley’s obsequiousness to Trump in the wake of the 2020 presidential election — culminating in his notorious Jan. 6 fist pump and formal objection to election certification even after the Capitol riot — Trump would not go against Hawley’s home state Senate pick.
Third, I assumed that Hawley’s backing would lead to a series of other endorsement dominoes falling for Hartzler.
I was wrong on all counts.
In retrospect, it seems evident that 1) the consulting team Hartzler shared with Hawley was going to engineer a Hawley endorsement without needing the data to show her as the likely beneficiary once undecideds began to break; and 2) despite Hawley’s backflips on Trump’s behalf, Trump’s famous indifference to those who had gone to the mat for him led to his attack on Hawley’s endorsee just before early voting started (During a private call with Trump, after Hartzler refused his demand that she backtrack on statements she had made after Jan. 6, he issued a statement attacking her and instructing Missouri Republicans to oppose her).
I was also wrong to assume that the endorsement would lead to other endorsements throughout the state. After seeing that Hawley was so disconnected from Republican state legislators that he needed a primer on the pronunciation of legislative leaders’ names, I should’ve known that other leading state Republicans wouldn’t necessarily fall in line.
In the end, once it became clear that Greitens was fading in the campaign’s final weeks, Hawley did little to help Hartzler – since his support for her was always less about boosting her and more about ensuring the defeat of his archnemesis Greitens.
What are the implications of this? Hawley’s relative impotence may encourage more Democrats to consider the 2024 U.S. Senate race. It will still be a very uphill battle, but given Hartzler’s finish nearly 25 points behind now-U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt, Hawley doesn’t appear to be the juggernaut his pollster had initially claimed when promoting the seismic impact his endorsement could have.
Mistake #2: I expected Gov. Mike Parson to appoint a woman to statewide office
Given those three facts, had you asked me two weeks ago whether Parson would be more likely to appoint a woman or an Asian-American to serve as State Treasurer, I’d have predicted the former. And my confidence in that would have risen after the House Republican caucus made history in selecting the first Asian-American Majority Floor Leader in state history — Jon Patterson.
I was wrong. Gov. Parson defied the conventional wisdom and picked Vivek Malik, an Indian-American immigration lawyer from St. Louis.
The implications of this are that we are likely to see a primary for State Treasurer. Republican elected officials across the state watched heavily-favored state Rep. Shamed Dogan lose his primary for St. Louis County Executive to a white woman named Katherine Pinner who didn’t campaign or raise money. Most believe the reason was his unusual name. So, many will see the political neophyte Malik as vulnerable.
Mistake #3: I expected David Gregory to drop out of the State Auditor’s race
When a state representative (who represents 1/163rd of the state) runs against a sitting statewide official (who represents 163/163rds of the state), the former begins at a distinct disadvantage.
There are three main ways to overcome this disadvantage: 1) build an incredible grassroots organization; 2) outflank your opponent ideologically such that you can drive a clear ideological wedge against them to paint them as a squishy moderate; or 3) possess a massive fundraising advantage.
David Gregory did not come to the race for Missouri Auditor with the activist base on his side nor develop a strong statewide grassroots presence. He was unable to outflank State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick on the right because there just isn’t much terrain to Fitzpatrick’s right. And despite strong fundraising, he was never going to build a significant fundraising advantage over a guy who could write himself a seven-figure check.
Accordingly, I expected Gregory to cut a deal whereby he would step aside for some sort of gubernatorial appointment. I was wrong.
There aren’t significant 2024 implications here; Gregory is just as strong a potential state Senate candidate as he’d have been had he cut a deal, and is the clear favorite to succeed Sen. Andrew Koenig next year.
Mistake #4: I misunderstood Jess Piper’s motivation for her Missouri House campaign
I previously wrote about Jess Piper’s northwest Missouri state House campaign, whose “Dirt Road Democrat” brand of rural progressivism skewered Republican legislative supermajorities on various issues. Her campaign leveraged social media to raise roughly $300,000, a huge sum for almost any state House candidate, especially a Democrat in a mostly working-class rural district where Biden and McCaskill had lost by 49 and 37 points, respectively. In fact, during the cycle’s final months, Piper had more cash on hand than the entire House Democratic Campaign Committee, whose job is to support campaigns across all 163 House districts.
Political scientists (my past career) have documented the diminishing marginal returns of campaign spending. That is, after a campaign has saturated a district with a certain amount of communication, each additional dollar has diminishing impact. So it’s difficult to efficiently spend $300,000 in a rural Missouri state House district where advertising is far cheaper than in major metro areas.
With that in mind, figuring that Piper realized she would lose in such a lopsided district, I suggested that she consider sending a portion of her money to a few hotly-contested swing districts.
Due to the far smaller amount Democrats spent in those races and consequent lack of message penetration – along with the closeness of those districts – $10,000 could have had a decisive impact and helped her party gain seats, whereas the impact of an additional $10,000 on top of $290,000 already spent in a less expensive district would be negligible.
At least three House Democratic candidates – Cindy Berne in St. Charles County, Mark Ellebracht in Clay County, and Colin Lovett in west St. Louis County – lost by less than 1% and likely would’ve won with another $10,000 spent on their behalf. (Piper ultimately lost by 50 points).
In broaching this I wasn’t implying that Piper had any obligation to financially support other candidates. I was implying that if she coveted a larger platform (such as potentially becoming state party chair), then the money could be more efficiently spent elsewhere, and in a way that could further endear her to Missouri Democrats.
But in offering such a recommendation, my assumptions were flawed.
Maybe I was wrong to assume that she knew she’d lose; social media echo chambers can easily distort candidates’ perceptions of a race.
I was definitely wrong to assume that she aspired to the state party chairmanship or some other party role that might leverage her huge social media platform. Perhaps she simply wanted to serve as state representative, as her recent filing to seek the seat again in 2024 indicates.
One of the most common mistakes political analysts make is to project their own sensibility onto their analytical targets, and I was guilty of that here.
The implications of this for 2024 are uncertain. Piper, who has amassed tens of thousands of social media followers – a significant percentage of whom were willing to invest in her campaign last cycle – clearly has native political talent. If she runs in her House district again, that talent might help bring some extra voters to the polls to help statewide Democratic candidates.
But it won’t change the outcome in her race.
That has nothing to do with Jess Piper. If Jesus Christ returned and decided to run in Piper’s district t as a Democrat, he’d lose. The opportunity to become state party chair may remain, but she may not have a better chance than the one available last month against a vulnerable Democratic party chair who faced vocal dissension from within the party ranks.
Mistake #5: I thought my old friend Eric Schmitt’s would return after winning the GOP Senate nomination
I know Eric Schmitt. Eric Schmitt was a friend of mine – he sat behind me when we both served in the state Senate.
Dear reader, this was not the Eric Schmitt I knew then.
While disappointed by his participation in the 2020 election denial legal shenanigans, I wasn’t shocked, given that polling showed roughly 70% of primary voters believed the election was stolen.
I was surprised, however, that Schmitt made no general election pivot.
His messaging this fall sounded far more like Hawley’s than like that of the man he will succeed, Sen. Roy Blunt.
Will that continue in the coming years? Some Chamber of Commerce types assure me that it will not. Others close to Schmitt tell me that the edgy 2022 Schmitt – not the one who was constrained by his moderate state Senate district – is actually the real Schmitt, and is here to stay.
Given Hawley’s distinctive populist positioning and national media profile, it will be interesting to see if Schmitt sticks with his newer, Hawley-esque posture, or positions himself as a dealmaker in the mold of Blunt – as he was a decade ago in what former Senator Jim Talent once told me was America’s greatest deliberative body, the Missouri Senate.
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