AGAINST THE GRAIN

The GOP’s Missouri Meltdown

Senate Republicans can’t afford to botch recruitment in red-state races if they want to expand their majority. Their experience in Missouri raises a cautionary flag for the midterms.

Missouri Republican Rep. Ann Wagner speaks to supporters on Nov. 7 at her campaign office where she was seeking her third term in office in Missouri's 2nd Congressional District.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 7, 2017, 12:18 p.m.

In a tu­mul­tu­ous polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, Re­pub­lic­ans need to play er­ror-free ball to ex­pand their Sen­ate ma­jor­ity. But if the party’s ex­per­i­ence in Mis­souri is any guide, the GOP needs to sharpen its game be­fore the midterms.

Here’s the back­ground: Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill is ar­gu­ably the most vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or up for reelec­tion, but she’s also a dogged cam­paign­er who is skilled at ex­ploit­ing her op­pon­ent’s weak­nesses. Rep. Ann Wag­n­er emerged as the ob­vi­ous early fa­vor­ite to chal­lenge Mc­Caskill, giv­en the con­gress­wo­man’s im­press­ive fun­drais­ing re­cord, polit­ic­al base in vote-rich sub­urb­an St. Louis, and abil­ity to ex­pand the num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an wo­men in the Sen­ate. Of­fi­cials at the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee ex­pec­ted her to jump in the race this month. She even hired a cam­paign man­ager for the planned Sen­ate run.

This is where the story gets in­ter­est­ing. Des­pite all of Wag­n­er’s strengths, some Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton were grow­ing en­am­ored with Mis­souri At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Josh Haw­ley, an am­bi­tious 37-year-old former Su­preme Court clerk who rock­eted to polit­ic­al prom­in­ence in last year’s state elec­tions. Mis­souri Re­pub­lic­ans across the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum, led by former Sen. John Dan­forth, cham­pioned his polit­ic­al po­ten­tial. At the same time, some lead­ing Mis­souri donors wer­en’t sold on Wag­n­er. They raised ques­tions about her com­mit­ment to con­ser­vat­ism, cre­at­ing the pro­spect of a con­tested primary.

Last month in a trip to Wash­ing­ton, Haw­ley spoke with of­fi­cials at NR­SC, ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al sources fa­mil­i­ar with the meet­ing. Haw­ley is rep­res­en­ted by the same con­sult­ing firm as NR­SC chair­man Cory Gard­ner—On­Mes­sage Inc.—giv­ing him a valu­able con­nec­tion to the key power brokers in the cap­it­al. There’s noth­ing wrong with the com­mit­tee meet­ing with pro­spect­ive can­did­ates, but Wag­n­er was kept in the dark about the dis­cus­sion, ac­cord­ing to a spokes­man for the con­gress­wo­man.

In a state­ment, Wag­n­er said she passed on a run due to fam­ily con­sid­er­a­tions. But a ma­jor reas­on she stepped aside is be­cause she felt snubbed by Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials who wer­en’t will­ing to put enough weight be­hind her can­did­acy, ac­cord­ing to sources fa­mil­i­ar with her de­cision. She didn’t dis­cuss her de­cision with Gard­ner or Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell be­fore re­leas­ing her state­ment, leav­ing them blind­sided to the polit­ic­al blow­back.

“When she de­cided not to run, it was more of a re­ac­tion to what she was hear­ing and deal­ing with over the last six months than any per­son­al rev­el­a­tion that she doesn’t want to be a sen­at­or,” said one seni­or GOP of­fi­cial fa­mil­i­ar with her think­ing. “She wasn’t able to unite the party, and prob­ably would have pro­voked some kind of primary.”

Wag­n­er’s ab­rupt re­versal puts Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials in a tight spot. They are now put­ting all their chips in re­cruit­ing Haw­ley to the race, be­liev­ing he’s just as strong of a can­did­ate as Wag­n­er. But he’s still ag­on­iz­ing over a de­cision, wary about leav­ing statewide of­fice after less than a year to pur­sue a job in Wash­ing­ton. Des­pite his cor­di­al con­ver­sa­tions in Wash­ing­ton, he nev­er was plan­ning to chal­lenge Wag­n­er in a primary. Now he will need to make a ca­reer-al­ter­ing de­cision in short or­der, risk­ing a com­fort­able job in leg­al circles to be­come the polit­ic­al face of the GOP’s re­cruit­ing class in 2018.

Re­pub­lic­ans have oth­er in­ter­ested can­did­ates if Haw­ley de­cides not to run, in­clud­ing state Treas­urer Eric Schmitt and Rep. Vicky Hartz­ler. But neither comes close to Haw­ley’s polit­ic­al fire­power. The big­ger GOP fear is that a wide-open, crowded primary field would lower the bar for win­ning, lead­ing to a weak can­did­ate emer­ging as Mc­Caskill’s chal­lenger—ex­actly what happened with Todd Akin’s flawed can­did­acy in 2012.

In­deed, fail­ing to ef­fect­ively nav­ig­ate in­tra­party chal­lenges five years ago is the reas­on why Mc­Caskill is still a sen­at­or today. Back then, Re­pub­lic­ans failed to clear the field for a cred­ible can­did­ate, even though the statewide polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment was highly fa­vor­able for the party. In turn, the polit­ic­ally tone-deaf Akin won the nom­in­a­tion, giv­ing Demo­crats a gift-wrapped Sen­ate seat they oth­er­wise wouldn’t have won.

That scen­ario looked un­likely to re­peat it­self in 2018, giv­en the deep bench of top Re­pub­lic­an of­fice­hold­ers and the state’s con­ser­vat­ive trend line. But there are some eer­ie sim­il­ar­it­ies in the party’s in­ab­il­ity to land its top can­did­ate and grow­ing fears of a messy Re­pub­lic­an free-for-all. If Re­pub­lic­ans can’t win in Mis­souri next year, it’s go­ing to be a very rough midterm cycle for the GOP.

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