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

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It’s time for the turn card in the poker hand that is the Missouri governor’s race.

Quick review for poker neophytes: in Texas Hold ‘Em, two cards are dealt face down to each player, while five “community cards” are dealt face up in three rounds – first, a group of three cards (“the flop”), then a single card (“the turn”) and a final card (“the river”). 

Each player seeks the best five-card poker hand from any combination of the seven cards (their two hole cards plus five community cards). Players may bet after each round. The best live hand wins the pot.

During the legislative session, I outlined the race, giving starting hands to Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft (pocket Jacks), Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe (Ace-Queen off-suit), and state Sen. Bill Eigel (3-5 of diamonds).

The flop came K-10-6 rainbow (King of clubs, 10 of diamonds, 6 of hearts). It didn’t help Ashcroft, though he remained in the lead with pocket jacks.

The turn card

The turn card is a third Jack, which might seem like it helps Ashcroft but it actually means his lead has vanished. Unfortunately for him, the card is even better for Kehoe, giving him the straight (10-J-Q-K-A), which catapults Kehoe ahead of Ashcroft’s also-improved hand of JJJ.

Despite this, the race remains very fluid. Let’s jump in.

Mike Kehoe

 Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe gavels in the Missouri Senate for the 2024 legislative session (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

To date, Kehoe has executed a nearly flawless campaign. 

He’s raised money with striking volume and consistency, and when all is said and done will have likely raised more than all of his opponents in both parties combined

He’s garnered interest group endorsements as comprehensively as any statewide candidate in history — even from some groups who had never endorsed. 

And perhaps just as importantly, he’s avoided mistakes. He hasn’t expressed skepticism about extra government support for veterans, been photographed in bizarre situations, gotten crosswise with Trump campaign leadership or tangled with fellow statewide Republican elected officials — all of which one or both of his opponents have done.  

Kehoe’s introductory bio ad was one of the best I’ve seen. That doesn’t mean I liked every word of it. But I’m not the target audience – I’m a Democrat!

Kehoe’s financial advantage enabled him to define himself early, having been up on TV since February in Springfield and St. Louis, and for the past month statewide. That significant and sustained ad buy helped Kehoe pull into a virtual tie with Ashcroft, according to the two latest polls. 

And Kehoe will likely carry that financial advantage through Election Day, because if he could raise several million dollars while being down 20 points in nearly every poll for a year, then he’ll surely be able to return to many of those donors and persuade them to double down now that the race is a dogfight. He should benefit from a virtuous circle with money driving polling, and polling driving money.  

Jay Ashcroft

 Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a candidate for governor, speaks on Feb. 29 at the Boone County Republican Lincoln Days dinner in Columbia (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

It’s difficult to compete with one hand tied behind your back, and that’s essentially what Ashcroft and Eigel have been trying to do for most of this year while Kehoe’s PAC has been up in two of the state’s largest markets.

Yet, despite running tons of ads attacking Ashcroft without any rebuttal, Kehoe’s PAC has not been able to drive up Ashcroft’s negatives enough to kill him off. 

And Ashcroft’s name ID — 50 years worth of it! — remains.

The downside of that is, despite having name ID hovering around 90% among frequent primary voters, Ashcroft has been stuck around 30% for most of the race. That’s an awful lot of folks who are familiar with a product but not sold on it.

Ashcroft’s theory of the race goes something like this. For five months, Kehoe’s had the airwaves to himself. His campaign has introduced him with slick bio ads and his PAC has kicked the crap out of us. And yet we’re still standing, even or slightly ahead, and now we finally get to untie our hobbled arm and fight back at close to even strength on the airwaves.

Fighting back likely means first that Ashcroft’s campaign begins to define himself with positive ads, and second that Ashcroft’s PAC attacks Kehoe’s support for the gas tax to try and make “Tax Hike Mike” the first thing voters conjure when they hear Kehoe’s name.

Ashcroft’s central challenge is one of momentum and inertia: given Kehoe’s relentless accumulation of money, endorsements and broader support via media buys, there has not been a week this cycle when he’s been in a stronger position than he was in the week before. Can his PAC buy, which starts this week, finally change that?

Bill Eigel

 State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, tells reporters his plan if he becomes governor, like a “capture and deport” policy for undocumented immigrants, prior to filing his candidacy on Feb. 27 (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

Back in my holiday column, I presented various Missouri politicos with Christmas “gifts,” and bestowed upon Eigel “a tumultuous session that boosts a burn-it-all-down candidacy,” noting that “unlike everyone else on this list, he can gift this to himself.” 

And much to the chagrin of Senate leadership, that’s exactly what he did.

In the first column of this series, I noted Eigel’s particular rhetorical gift at framing populist issues. I wrote that absent Ashcroft’s brand name and Kehoe’s money, Eigel’s campaign hinged on his ability to successfully leverage the Senate floor to capture the attention of grassroots conservatives and mobilize them behind his candidacy.

While Eigel had ephemeral successes in doing so — especially after Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden martyred him by taking his prime parking space — I doubt that most of his session maneuvers have stuck with many voters, or will stick through Election Day.

Voters — and I’m absolutely including myself here — have the attention spans of amoebas. 

While initiative petition reform certainly animated the Freedom Caucus’s parliamentary tactics during session and got a band of activists fired up, it didn’t spread much beyond the activist base. 

Does Eigel have the majority of die-hards who show up at county committee meetings? I believe that he does. But as a process issue, IP reform just doesn’t carry the emotional valence of hot-button issues like immigration or crime that better resonate with the conservative base.

I spent nearly 50 hours straight in the Senate gallery during a filibuster near the end of session flanked at times by a couple of activists who wanted to see IP reform pass, and even they weren’t backing Eigel. It wasn’t because they didn’t like his policy stances; in fact, they loved them. It was because they doubted his odds of winning, and believed Ashcroft was the strategic choice for conservative activists.

Eigel will keep the diehards he’s methodically courted since losing his Senate leadership race years ago. If your civic engagement is focused on the ability to use precious metals as legal tender, you’re probably voting for him.

But much of his rhetorical fire this session focused on niche issues like that. Sometimes you felt that, despite his ample oratorical gifts and the unique organizational talents of Eigel strategist Sophie Shore, he lacked the money and bandwidth to reach a sufficiently broad audience.

That explains why the turn card, a Jack, didn’t move Eigel closer towards a winning hand.

With his continuing struggle to move beyond single digits in the polls, trial attorneys — rather than stalwart conservatives aligned with his platform —constituting his only remaining funding source and the low-dollar fundraising kerfuffle that incited displeasure among top Trump aides precluding a Trump endorsement, I’m not seeing a catalyst that could vault Eigel to victory.

Poker and political probabilities

So where does this leave us?

Sitting on the nut straight — that is, the highest possible straight, since it goes to the ace — Kehoe is the new favorite, since his straight edges out Ashcroft’s 3-of-a-kind.

But he’s only a slight favorite. 

That’s because the river card is still to come, and there are many cards out there that could return Ashcroft to the lead. 

Both four-of-a-kind and a full house — three of a kind, plus a pair — beat a straight. Which means that if the river card is a Jack (giving him four of a kind), King, 10 or Six, Ashcroft wins. And so there are still 10 possible cards in the deck giving Ashcroft the win.

What, in political terms, might those cards be?

The first and most obvious would be a Trump endorsement of Ashcroft. 

It’s not implausible. 

Ashcroft endorsed Trump early, and tonally is the Trumpier of the two leading candidates, despite Kehoe’s more recent pro-Trump posture. You’d have to assume that family patriarch John Ashcroft is working every angle in Trump’s orbit he can to make this happen, likely pointing at former Ron DeSantis strategist Jeff Roe’s association with Kehoe’s PAC.  

A second possibility would be if Ashcroft is able to effectively weaponize Kehoe’s support for the sale of farmland to China in 2013, or a 2021 gas tax increase. I doubt either is likely to move the needle very much, and here’s why.

On the former, Kehoe’s PAC spent the last few months muddying the waters on the China farmland issue by accusing Ashcroft of testifying in support of the bill in question, which will make it somewhat harder to land a clean shot at Kehoe. 

On the latter issue, there are a few reasons I’m skeptical it will do much damage.

First, I saw gas at $2.60/gallon in rural Missouri last week – it’s around $3/gallon in the cities – and so the issue won’t pack the punch it might have if gas were still $4/gallon. Second, the tax passed years ago, and while it still annoys some, it’s not especially onerous – about $1 extra per tank. Third, other issues are animating the base – the aforementioned issues of crime and immigration, and of course, the “persecution” of former president Donald Trump. (With the coming debate and the Republican National Convention a couple weeks later, it may be difficult for any regional issue to penetrate the cacophony of national politics.)

Finally, between the gubernatorial race, down ballot races for attorney general, lieutenant governor, treasurer and secretary of state and what is shaping up as a very expensive St. Louis Democratic congressional primary,  $25 million may be spent on Missouri primaries between today and Aug 6. So, it will be challenging, though not impossible, for $1 million of spending from Ashcroft’s PAC to cut through all that clutter.  

That’s why I think Kehoe enters this final phase of the primary with a slight, though far from insurmountable, edge.

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.

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