Against the Grain

A Strategic Gamble in Missouri

Josh Hawley is betting that he can defeat Sen. Claire McCaskill by running as a steadfast Trump ally. Is that enough to win a red state in a polarized country?

Missouri Attorney General and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
June 5, 2018, 5 p.m.

The Show-Me State’s heated Senate race this year will show something important: How much independence do red-state voters want from their elected officials in these polarized times? The Missouri contest, between Sen. Claire McCaskill and state Attorney General Josh Hawley (assuming he wins a primary), will test whether conservative-minded voters want a Trump loyalist in office or prefer a check on the president’s excesses — even it means reelecting a Democrat who was an enthusiastic backer of President Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Both candidates are still playing to their parties’ bases, at their own political peril. McCaskill voted against confirming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, even though three of her red-state colleagues supported his appointment. While Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner backed Gina Haspel as CIA director, McCaskill didn’t join many of the party’s moderates in voting for Haspel’s confirmation. She opposed last year’s tax-cut legislation, and tends to equivocate when asked her thoughts about President Trump.

McCaskill has the trickiest political challenge of any Democratic senator on the ballot this year: She needs to rally a restive Democratic base in the urban corners of Kansas City and St. Louis, while still picking off enough rural voters across the state’s expansive heartland. Unlike other Senate Democrats up in 2018, she aggressively championed Clinton in a state Trump won by 19 points. Her net job-approval rating back home ranked as the lowest of any Senate Democrat, according to an April Morning Consult survey.

McCaskill’s campaign argument is that she’s willing to listen to her critics. She touts the fact that she’s held more than 50 town halls across the state, even in conservative areas. One of her first ads acknowledges that voters won’t agree with her on everything, but she’s willing to listen. “I’ve tried to go out of my way to places where I’m not all that popular,” McCaskill said in the spot. “Lots of these folks have never and will never vote for me. You know people will ask questions that aren’t easy to answer, but that’s the deal.”

Hawley, her expected GOP opponent, routinely slams McCaskill for lacking independence, but he is toeing his own party’s line when it comes to Trump. In an interview with National Journal, Hawley declined to name a single issue where he disagreed with the president’s policies. He defended the president’s protectionist push as the sign of a tough negotiator, supported the administration’s diplomacy with North Korea, and took a dim view of Robert Mueller’s investigation, urging him to wrap it up quickly. Hawley avoided criticizing Trump’s tweet arguing it was constitutionally possible for the president to pardon himself, saying he “totally gets where the president is coming from.”

“I welcome the president’s support in the race. I have a clear record of being an independent official,” Hawley said. “If or when I disagree with him on an issue, I’ll stand up and say it.”

Leading Republicans, from House Speaker Paul Ryan to Sen. Pat Toomey, have criticized Trump’s newly imposed tariffs against the U.S.’s Canadian and European allies. Rank-and-file Republicans, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley, dismissed the president’s argument that he had unchecked executive power. The party’s campaign-committee chairman, Sen. Cory Gardner, reiterated his support for the Mueller investigation.

The issue of trade will be a critical test of whether conservative Missouri farmers remain loyal to a president, or are willing to break from their GOP roots if his policies make it more difficult for them to sell their goods. Missouri is the sixth-leading soybean-producing state and seventh-largest pork producer in the country, and the state’s farmers would suffer over a protracted trade war with China.

“[Trump] won this state by nearly 20 points, and who gave him that margin? Farmers. They say ‘Let’s see what the president’s next move is,’” Hawley said. “Here’s the thing about the president’s trade policy: He’s right to take on cheaters, in particular China. He’s right to say we need a better deal.”

McCaskill, meanwhile, has been a reliable critic of Trump’s trade policies, joining GOP Sen. Roy Blunt in pushing back against the administration’s tariffs. “Voters don’t want a blank check for the party in power and instead support candidates who work with the president when he is right and stand up to him when he isn’t,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director Lauren Passalacqua.

Both parties view the path to winning the Senate quite differently. Democratic operatives are confident that outside of hardcore GOP partisans, many Trump-voting independents want a check on the president. Republicans are betting that the key to holding the majority rests on Trump motivating his red-state supporters to punish Democrats, like McCaskill, for being insufficiently supportive of the administration.

The victor in Missouri won’t just win a critical Senate race, but will offer a clear verdict on which party’s gamble paid off.

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