Popularity of a president often looms large during midterm elections, as it often plays a bigger role in voter decision-making than seemingly endless television ads or the back-and-forth between candidates.
Attorney General Josh Hawley is clearly banking that President Donald Trump will be popular enough this fall to assist his Senate bid against U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. He made that contention during a Tuesday night campaign stop in west St. Louis County.
“I’m delighted to have the president’s support,” Hawley said to a group of reporters. “I hope he’ll be in Missouri often.”
Whether Hawley will want Trump stumping for him later this year is impossible to prognosticate. A multitude of foreign or domestic events could affect how Missouri voters view the president, as well as GOP candidates like Hawley. But in these early months, Hawley isn’t just embracing Trump with his rhetoric. He’s welcoming the president to a Wednesday fundraiser in St. Louis, which will likely pad his already commanding financial advantage over his other Republican competitors.
Trump won Missouri’s electoral votes in 2016 by a landslide, racking up unprecedented margins in the state’s rural and exurban counties. McCaskill has often outperformed other Missouri Democrats in rural and suburban areas, so Hawley will need to do well in those parts of the state to win in November.
“President Trump won Missouri by 19 points for a reason,” Hawley said. “I think it’s that he understands that our way of life here is under threat. He understands that we cannot continue on the path that we’ve been on. We cannot keep offshoring jobs. We cannot have middle class wages be where they are. We cannot have health care cost people their entire paycheck.
“He gets that,” he added. “And that’s why he’s president. And those are the issues that I’m going to go to tackle in the Senate.”
But a president’s party often faces a tougher national environment during midterm elections. Democrats lost seats in 2010 and 2014 during President Barack Obama’s tenure, while the GOP lost control of Congress during the 2006 cycle — the same year that McCaskill won a U.S. Senate seat from a Republican incumbent.
Trump isn’t making it easy for Republican candidates, as he regularly says or tweets provocative comments or fires staff. On Tuesday, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — who U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt solidly supported when he was nominated for the post back in 2017. CIA director Mike Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, is taking Tillerson’s place.
“I have confidence in Mike Pompeo, who I think will be a good replacement,” Hawley said. “I look forward to seeing him as secretary of state.”
For her part, McCaskill has often pointed out areas where she agrees with Trump — as her campaign put out a press release on Tuesday noted that Trump signed close to 24 bills she was involved with into law. But she’s also blasted the president’s tax cut plan, as well as his decision to place tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.
“I think Missourians are just going to figure out who’s getting things done and who is willing to work across the aisle — and who is not trying to fight Donald Trump every day, but willing to check Donald Trump,” McCaskill said to reporters in Hannibal earlier this month. “I think they’re going to evaluate the candidate on that basis.”
Turning up the heat
Hawley announced his U.S. Senate bid last year, but Tuesday’s statewide tour marked his official kickoff to his campaign. It comes as Democrats, including McCaskill, are heaping on the scrutiny of the 38-year-old statewide officeholder.
For instance: State Sen. Scott Sifton on Tuesday asked state Auditor Nicole Galloway to look into whether Hawley disclosed public records under the Sunshine Law. Sifton’s letter stems from when his GOP primary opponent for attorney general sought documents generated when he was a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
And Democrats have sought to attach Gov. Eric Greitens’ political woes to Hawley’s campaign, as evidenced by a group of protesters who gathered outside of Hawley’s event. McCaskill used part of her Democrat Days speech earlier this month to contend that Hawley wasn’t aggressively investigating Greitens’ administration.
“He wants a bigger job,” McCaskill said. “And it’s our job, together, to keep some balance in Missouri.”
For his part, Hawley said “the situation with the governor is bad for the state and it’s something I’m concerned about for the state of Missouri.”
“The politics of it? I leave that to one side,” Hawley said. “But look, Sen. McCaskill is going to desperately try to change the subject at every turn, because her record is terrible. She does not represent the people of Missouri.”
Before Hawley gets to face off against McCaskill, he’ll have to get through a 10-person GOP primary. The field includes several candidates that have raised in the six-figures — including former Libertarian presidential candidate Austin Petersen and Warrensburg resident Tony Monetti.
Like McCaskill, Petersen criticized Hawley for running for the U.S. Senate — even though he said in 2016 “I am running to be attorney general of Missouri, and that is the job I have my sights set on — I’m not running for this job to get that or this or the other thing.”
Hawley said in late February that “it’s no secret that this is not a campaign I had intended to run, it’s not an office I intended to seek.”
“But it is an urgent time for our country,” Hawley said. “And there are urgent issues at stake right now in the United States Senate. And the United States Senate is in many ways the fulcrum of the major issues we’re facing as a country.”
With the criticism likely to ramp up in the coming months, Hawley said on Tuesday night he is ready for the campaign ahead. It’s expected to be one of the most competitive and expensive U.S. Senate races in the country.
“Missouri was once the frontier of our nation, but we have always been the heart of our democracy,” Hawley said. “Our convictions, our courage, our independence — that’s what makes democracy possible. And now, it is our turn to lead our democracy to a better day.”
On the Trail weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
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