It was less than two years ago that Josh Hawley did something no other Republican has accomplished in 28 years: Prevail in an attorney general’s race.
This November, Republicans are banking on Hawley to accomplish another milestone in defeating U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. It’s an outcome that could determine whether the GOP retains control of the U.S. Senate and showcase whether Missouri is completely out of reach for the Democratic Party.
But his decision to challenge McCaskill has placed his prior campaign rhetoric and his actions as attorney general into greater scrutiny. Even though Missouri has become a more Republican state since McCaskill was first elected in 2006, few people are counting her out — especially with her reputation as a capable campaigner and a history of solid electoral performance in rural Missouri.
With the eyes of the nation once again turning toward Missouri, Hawley is keenly aware of what’s on the line.
“We’re not flyover country,” Hawley said. “We are the heart of America. We are the best of America. And this November, our choice is going to determine the future of America.”
Hawley spent most of his childhood in Lexington — a rural town in Lafayette County that’s about 45 miles east of Kansas City. That city is home to another Missouri political legend: Former Congressman Ike Skelton, a Democrat who Hawley noted was taught about in local schools.
After graduating from high school, Hawley attended Stanford University and Yale Law School. Among other things, Hawley was a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. And before being elected attorney general, Hawley was a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Before he was elected to office in 2016, Hawley perhaps gained the most notoriety for his involvement in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case as a senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Supreme Court ruled that a for-profit corporation could object to a regulation in which it had religious objections — which, in the case of Hobby Lobby, was a requirement from the Affordable Care Act to cover certain types of birth control.
Ultimately Hawley decided to run for attorney general in 2016. The Republican primary against then-Sen. Kurt Schaefer was decidedly nasty, with both candidates raising millions to run negative ads against each other. Schaefer even went so far to accuse Hawley of “working for the American Taliban,” which Hawley steadfastly denied. Hawley ended up defeating Schaefer and his general election opponent, former Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley, by wide margins.
During that campaign, Hawley used his lack of elected experience as an asset — and blasted his Republican and Democratic opponents for trying to climb the “political ladder.” During an October 2016 appearance on Politically Speaking, Hawley stated: “I am running to be attorney general of Missouri — and that’s the job that I want to do.”
Hawley’s detractors have brought up those comments since he announced his Senate bid in 2017. He said he changed course in his political career because “our way of life is at stake.”
Missouri Right to Life and the National Rifle Association endorsed Hawley’s candidacy, with the NRA spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on his behalf.
He’s come out in favor of revamping the earned income tax credit. Currently, taxpayers get a benefit once a year if they qualify for the incentive. Hawley wants to deliver a wage boost of sorts directly to workers’ paychecks.
More than anything else, Hawley has sought to tie himself with Trump’s agenda. He was a strong supporter of a tax cut plan that was signed into law at the end of 2017. Hawley also has signaled support for Trump’s policies on immigration and trade. And he’s made Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court a major aspect of his campaign.
“President Trump won this state by 19 points,” Hawley said. “And the judges issue and the Supreme Court was a big, big issue in that election. I think folks right now, they see what’s going on, on Capitol Hill. They see the way the Senate has conducted itself and the liberals have conducted themselves. And they’re thinking ‘this is crazy. This is just crazy.’”
Hawley is clearly banking on Trump retaining his popularity in Missouri. Both Trump and Pence have campaigned on Hawley’s behalf — and helped him raise money. Most public polls have the president’s approval rating hovering around 50 percent in Missouri.
If those numbers hold steady, it might help Hawley in socially conservative suburbs where he needs a lot of votes — such as St. Charles and Jefferson counties.
“I think this will be a mandate on the Trump administration if Josh Hawley wins or Josh Hawley loses,” said Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller, a Republican. “Claire McCaskill’s a tough candidate. She was very tough in 2012. And some people say she pulled that race out — a lot of people didn’t expect her to win. So I think the polls show it’s a pretty even race. I think if he wins Jefferson County, I think he’ll win the Senate race.”
Added St. Charles Republican state Rep. Kathie Conway: “I think the stronger Trump is, the stronger Hawley is.”
McCaskill has consistently raised more money than Hawley. But supportive third-party groups have largely filled in the gap. Outside groups have spent more money in the Missouri Senate contest than other federal election in the nation.
Both McCaskill and her Democratic allies have attacked on a multitude of issues. For one thing, McCaskill and supportive third-party groups have highlighted Hawley’s previous advertisements disparaging politicians that “climb the political ladder.”
She's also has zeroed in on a lawsuit that Hawley has joined to do away with the Affordable Care Act's provisions, including its insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
“And that was a decision he made,” McCaskill said. “And I don’t think most Missourians want those protections to go away. And so, if he doesn’t want those protections to go away he needs to withdraw from the lawsuit.”
Hawley says that Congress can step in to pass a law protecting people with pre-existing conditions, even if the ACA is no longer in place
Most credible polls show McCaskill and Hawley in a dead heat. Even with much of the state trending Republican, few are counting McCaskill out — especially with her reputation an effective campaigner and her history of doing better-than-normal in rural Missouri.
Former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, who McCaskill defeated in 2006, says Hawley is doing all the right things — but expects a close result.
“Josh is young. He’s hitting some really good themes. I thought it was going to be tough for her. I still do,” Talent said. “Now what we don’t know is will this be a big blue wave election? I think it’s going to be a Democratic year. But how much I don’t know.”
The answer to Talent’s question could be critical. And not just for determining who prevails in the Hawley-McCaskill contest. Most political observers agree that Democrats will probably not retake the Senate if Hawley is able to defeat McCaskill.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum