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.