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Hawley, McCaskill zero in on central themes as U.S. Senate contest hits home stretch

Sen. Claire McCaskill and Attorney General Josh Hawley campaign in the St. Louis region on Oct. 29, 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Claire McCaskill and Attorney General Josh Hawley campaign in the St. Louis region on Monday.

As Missouri’s nationally-watched Senate race enters the final few days, incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill and GOP challenger Josh Hawley focused Monday on their core campaign messages as they stumped in St. Louis.

For Hawley, it was voting for President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees. And for McCaskill, it was protecting key health care benefits in the Affordable Care Act.

U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Cory Gardner of Colorado joined Hawley and several hundred people at a packed rally in Chesterfield.

Most of the speakers honed in on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearings, which Hawley said has galvanized the GOP base.

“I think it has opened people’s eyes to the agenda of the Democrat left,” Hawley said. “What they’re willing to do to seize power and how they have never accepted the results of the 2016 election. And it’s also opened people’s eyes to Sen. McCaskill.”  

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Shortly before Hawley's rally, McCaskill was in St. Louis accepting an endorsement from the American Nurses Association. She’s been ripping Hawley for months for his decision to join a lawsuit to strike down the Affordable Care Act — emphasizing that such a move would remove a requirement for insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions.

Other endangered provisions, she said, include the mandate that insurance companies allow people up to the age of 26 to remain on their parents’ policies.

“It means so much to me because I think it is the defining issue of the campaign,” McCaskill said of the nurses’ endorsement. “I believe health care is on the ballot.”

Both candidates will get high-profile backup throughout the week. Former Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to stump for McCaskill on Wednesday in Bridgeton. President Donald Trump is holding a rally for Hawley on Thursday in Columbia, and another one next Monday in Cape Girardeau.

Vice President Mike Pence is headlining another event for Hawley on Friday in Kansas City.

McCaskill quipped at her event that it “says something’’ that Trump is making two stops in Missouri during the final week.

‘I’ve had it’

UU.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham poses for a photo with supporters of Missouri Attorney General and senatorial candidate Josh Hawley at a campaign event at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Chesterfield on  Oct. 29, 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

In many respects, Graham was the star attraction at Hawley’s rally — which featured speeches from U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., state Treasurer Eric Schmitt and U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth.

Graham was initially a fierce critic of Trump, especially during the 2016 election cycle. Things got so bad between the two that Trump gave out Graham’s cell phone number — causing the South Carolina senator to destroy it in a web video.

While emphasizing that he doesn’t always agree with Trump’s policies or choice of words, Graham said he felt compelled to campaign for candidates like Hawley after the Kavanaugh hearings.

“Why is it the good conservative who gets mauled? Well I’ve had it,” Graham said. “That’s what Kavanaugh was about.”

Many fans of the president rallied around Graham after he gave a passionate defense of Kavanaugh, and a condemnation of Democrats, during a hearing.

“All of us were just astonished that the president picks the most qualified person from the Bush world,” said Graham, referring to how Kavanaugh worked for former President George W. Bush. “So their goal is not just to destroy Trump. It’s to deny us what comes with winning.”

Graham said McCaskill “clearly did not understand that Trump won this state by 19 points.”

“So here’s the deal: It blew up in their face. They went too far,” Graham said. “If you want to stop it, they’ve got to lose. Right? It’s the only way it’s going to stop.”

Missouri Attorney General and senatorial candidate Josh Hawley poses for photos with supporters at a campaign event in Chesterfield on Oct. 29, 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Speaking to reporters after his speech, Graham acknowledged that he had been complimentary of McCaskill in the past — pointing to her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee. But on the big stuff, Graham said, “it’s just not working.”

“I like Claire, but I love the country more,” Graham said. “If you don’t see [Supreme Court Justice Neil] Gorsuch and Kavanaugh as qualified, then you’re blind. Politically, partisan blind. She was there for Obama all the time. She’s never really helped Trump do anything.”

Both Graham and Hawley said the Kavanaugh hearings brought disparate parts of the Republican Party coalition together. And Graham said what happens in Missouri could be a definitive referendum on whether Kavanaugh’s treatment was just.  

“I do reach across the aisle when it makes sense,” he said. “But I love my party. I love conservative judges. I’m willing to respect outcomes of elections. But I’m not going to sit on the sidelines and watch our people be destroyed.”

McCaskill laments campaign tone

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill speaks to a group of nurses after announcing an endorsement from the American Nurses Association at a campaign event at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 in St. Louis on Oct. 29, 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

At her St. Louis event, McCaskill recalled the numerous times when she and Graham had worked closely together on various issues, many of them involving the military.

“I know Lindsey Graham has said an awful lot of nice things about me over the years. It’s kind of sad that it’s come to this,” she said.

McCaskill contended that the GOP message is: “‘They stink and we don’t.’”

McCaskill said she was concerned that voters might be distracted and not understand the health care stakes, should Hawley get elected. She contended that she suspects the insurance and pharmaceutical companies are behind some of the attack ads against her that outside groups have paid to have run on Missouri TV stations.

“We can’t go back to the bad old days when insurance companies had the run of the house,’’ she said, by controlling who could get insurance coverage and who could not.

Rhonda Newberry, a member of the New York-based American Nurses Association, said the group supported McCaskill’s efforts to protect health coverage and curb the rise in costs for prescription drugs.

Both candidates reflect on violence

Both McCaskill and Hawley reflected on a series of events that gripped the country last week: Saturday’s massacre of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the murder of two African-Americans outside a Kentucky grocery store, and pipe bombs sent to Democratic politicians and celebrities.

McCaskill said she is concerned about the increase in violence throughout the country.

“I think people are tired of the ‘tribalism,’” that pits Americans against each other, McCaskill said.

“Something’s going on and we need everybody, including our president, to help us find unity in those things that all Americans agree on,” she continued. “Because our country is not as divided as the politicians want to make people believe.”

Regarding the Pittsburgh shootings, Hawley told reporters: “It needs to be condemned without any reservation. It is pure, raw hatred for our Jewish brethren and we have to condemn that in the strongest terms.”

Some elected officials, including Pittsburgh’s mayor, criticized Trump for stating the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh shooting may have been stopped if there were armed guards at the synagogue.

For his part, Graham said “it was up to the people in each synagogue, temple and church to deal with the times in which we live in.” He said that his church “protects themselves.”

“I didn’t blame Bernie Sanders when Steve Scalise got shot,” Graham said. “I don’t blame Trump for the bomb threats and the only person to blame here is the anti-Semite — and hate-filled monger who I hope gets justice.”

Asked about the president’s comments, Hawley said “I think it’s up to local congregations, whatever faith background, how they want to protect themselves and what that looks like for them.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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