Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has defeated U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, giving the state and the country a new Republican in the Senate – and President Donald Trump a sought-after victory.
“This was about defending our way of life. It was about renewing it for a new day,” Hawley said, touching off deafening cheers from supporters gathered in Springfield at the University Plaza hotel. “And tonight the people of Missouri said we believe in that way of life, it's not the past, it’s the future."
McCaskill conceded defeat shortly before 11 p.m., after late returns from St. Louis County showed that her hoped-for surge in Missouri’s urban and suburban areas would not be enough to counter Hawley’s huge support in the state’s rural areas.
In many of Missouri’s rural counties, Hawley received more than 70 percent of the vote. As 2016’s results showed, statewide Democrats cannot win if they can’t get at least 35 percent of the rural vote.
That was why McCaskill traveled the state for more than a year and held most of her 52 town halls in rural parts of the state. But that wasn’t enough as he beat her 51 - 45 percent.
Vote total shows rural/urban split
McCaskill, who has held statewide office for 20 years – as state auditor and U.S. senator – did not address the state’s rural-urban divide in her concession speech. Rather, she said that she still planned to have a public voice, even if she no longer holds public office.
“I will be out there fighting for you, I will continue to serve,’’ McCaskill told supporters in a ballroom at the Marriott Grand hotel in downtown St. Louis. She added that she hoped to mentor a new generation of potential Democratic officials.
“For now it is good night, but not goodbye,” she concluded.
In his victory speech, Hawley rejected the idea that Missouri voters are divided, although he lost big in the state’s two major urban areas.
“As I travel around this state, we've heard a lot about how divided the country is, and how divided the state is. I don't know that that's really true,” he said.
“I’m going to Washington and standing up for our values. I said that I would fight to secure our borders, and I will. I said that I will be an advocate and fight for pro-Constitution, pro-America judges on our courts, and I will."
Hawley’s win was among at least three nationally where Republicans toppled Democratic incumbents.
Missouri’s Senate contest also was among a handful that attracted significant interest – and cash – from outside groups. That outside money helped Hawley overcome McCaskill’s huge financial edge.
In a reflection of that outside involvement, the National Rifle Association, the Susan B. Anthony Coalition – a national anti-abortion group – and numerous national Republican groups lauded Hawley’s victory even before McCaskill took to the stage to concede.
Hawley seen as rising star
At 38, Hawley will be among the youngest members of the Senate. His win is his second major statewide success in two years. In 2016, Hawley was the state’s biggest vote-getter during a GOP wave that saw Missouri voters back Trump by almost 19 percentage points.
This time, Hawley generally ignored state issues during his Senate campaign. Instead, he sought to “nationalize” the contest by promoting the president’s policies while branding McCaskill as a classic Democratic liberal “out of touch’’ with average Missouri voters.
Hawley touted his socially conservative views, including his opposition to most abortions and his support for gun rights. His major theme was his support for more conservative judges, notably recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. McCaskill had opposed him.
Strong Trump support
Trump loomed large in their showdown, visiting Missouri seven times since early 2017, mainly to stump for Hawley. The president’s last visit was late Monday in Cape Girardeau, just hours before the polls opened.
State Rep. Kathy Conway, a Republican from St. Charles, had predicted weeks ago that “the stronger Trump is, the stronger Hawley is.”
Hawley also received last-minute help from most of Missouri’s top state Republicans – including Gov. Mike Parson and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt – who joined him during a statewide campaign blitz Monday.
Hawley also spent his last weekend campaigning with new National Rifle Association President Oliver North, a former conservative commentator, retired Marine and controversial aide to then-President Ronald Reagan.
Victory further weakens Missouri Democrats
By defeating McCaskill, Hawley strengthens the GOP’s already huge clout in the state. Only one statewide Democrat remains: Auditor Nicole Galloway, who barely defeated Republican challenger Saundra McDowell, who had little party support.
Hawley has not signaled what his top legislative issues would be, other than his pledge to work to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the health insurance measure passed in 2010 under then-President Barack Obama.
Hawley’s campaign focus on legal issues reflects, in part, his background.
Hawley grew up in Lexington, Missouri, about 45 miles east of Kansas City. After high school, he went west and then east. Hawley attended Stanford University in California and Yale Law School in Connecticut. He served as a law clerk for two judges, notably U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Hawley then got involved as an appellate litigator for several religious-conservative foundations and firms. He is best known for his involvement in a legal fight on behalf of Hobby Lobby, which opposed the ACA’s requirement that company-provided insurance cover contraception. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the company.
Hawley had returned to Missouri where he was a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, before he decided in 2016 to run for state attorney general. He defeated state Sen. Kurt Schaefer in a vigorous GOP primary, then went on to handily defeat Democrat Teresa Hensley in the general election.
He swiftly attracted the attention of top Republicans because he received more votes in 2016 than any other GOP candidate on Missouri ballots – including Trump.
Reporter Jonathan Ahl contributed to this article