Against the Grain

In Missouri, Kavanaugh Fight Sparked a GOP Revival

Republicans are growing optimistic that Attorney General Josh Hawley is pulling ahead because of a newly-engaged base. Claire McCaskill is sounding a bipartisan note in the final stretch, hoping to win over voters in the middle.

Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley speaks to supporters during a campaign stop Sept. 27, in St. Charles, Mo.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
Oct. 14, 2018, 6 a.m.

COLUMBIA, Mo.—Of all Republican congressional hopefuls, no one viewed Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearings more favorably than Senate candidate Josh Hawley. Hawley, who is Missouri's attorney general and a former clerk to Justice John Roberts, is one of the few GOP candidates to focus his campaign message on the Supreme Court and is already seeing a late surge in his race against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.

The Missouri race is critical to the GOP’s goal of picking off enough red-state Democratic seats to build a sturdy long-term majority for the foreseeable future. Republicans now view Missouri as the party’s second-best pickup opportunity, after the North Dakota contest that’s increasingly looking like a GOP landslide. If Hawley’s post-Kavanaugh surge is lasting, Republicans believe their fortunes in several other red-state races will turn their way.

“When Trump nominated Judge Kavanaugh, they knew vaguely who he was, they were vaguely supportive. If you said what’s his name again, they couldn’t tell you. Now they know him, they know his wife, they know his daughters, so many people watched the hearings,” Hawley said in an interview at his campaign headquarters. “They are furious about the disgraceful behavior of the U.S. Senate and some Democrats. They’re furious that Judge Kavanaugh was smeared like this, that his wife and daughters had to go through this.”

A Fox News poll, released last week, showed the race tied at 46 percent but with Hawley having more room to grow with his base than McCaskill, who already consolidated most of hers. Hawley’s campaign believes that the Kavanaugh fight has nationalized the contest, engaging partisans and pushing undecided GOP-leaning voters in Hawley’s direction. The campaign’s own tracking has shown an expanding Hawley advantage in the past week. “This race is moving the way of North Dakota,” said one national GOP operative.

In a sign of the campaign’s confidence that the Supreme Court fight moved Missouri voters, Hawley cut an ad last week focused exclusively on the Kavanaugh confirmation. “People in our Senate today, they’ve created a circus. Liberals like Claire McCaskill and Chuck Schumer, they don’t want the truth. They only want power. … I’m Josh Hawley and I will fight for the Supreme Court. It’s the last line of defense for our values. It’s worth the battle,” Hawley says in the ad.

Among red-state Democrats, McCaskill has taken a unique position on the Supreme Court fight. She came out against Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Sept. 19, three days after The Washington Post reported on Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh. Saying she was “setting aside” the allegation, McCaskill instead focused her opposition to Kavanaugh on the judge’s rulings on campaign finance and the scope of presidential power. In an interview with National Journal, she said Ford’s testimony had no impact on her decision.

“It did not weigh on my thinking. Once I made up my mind, while I understood the emotion on both sides in the hearings, it wasn’t in any way an influence on the decision I made,” McCaskill said. Despite her opposition to Kavanaugh, McCaskill spent time lamenting the polarized state of our politics when reflecting on the hearings: “I hope Missourians see this incident as a warning that we cannot allow our country to get so tribal that we see a set of facts 180 degrees differently and can’t see the other person’s point of view.”

The candidates are offering contrasting closing messages: Hawley as a stalwart champion of the Trump administration, and McCaskill as a moderating voice at a moment of divisiveness. In the past month alone, Hawley benefited from a presidential rally and a vice presidential fundraiser. He declined to name any issues where he disagrees with the Trump administration. “I take him literally when he means to be taken literally, and I take him figuratively when he means to be taken figuratively,” Hawley said.

McCaskill is betting that Missouri voters prefer a check on the president, even in a state where Trump is still widely popular. “I don’t think this is the moment in history to vote for someone who doesn’t disagree with anything the president has done,” McCaskill said.

McCaskill’s latest ad touts her bipartisan record in the Senate, featuring a photo of her sitting next to President Trump and referencing her work with neighboring GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. But she’s only winning 49 percent of moderates and 45 percent of women, according to the Fox News survey, suggesting that she’s got to improve her own image to pull out a victory.

Her campaign’s focus has been contrasting Hawley’s opposition to Obamacare—including signing onto a lawsuit that sought to overturn the law—with her pledge to protect benefits for those with preexisting conditions. “Even during the [Kavanaugh] hearings, when the vote was happening, the Number 1 issue we were hearing about knocking on doors was health care,” said a McCaskill spokeswoman.

Hawley, in response, went up with an advertisement invoking his son’s battle with a chronic disease and pledging to force insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions. Democrats (and a home-state editorial board) are crying foul, arguing that his alternative plan isn’t economically feasible.

But if health care was the top issue in the race in September, the race has become a traditional red-blue flight down the stretch. Hawley’s campaign recently moved all of its advertising traffic to focus on the Kavanaugh fight, according to a Hawley adviser. McCaskill’s disinterest in dwelling on the contentious confirmation feels like an unspoken acknowledgment that the issue isn’t benefiting her in conservative-minded Missouri.

“Voters in Missouri voted for Donald Trump by 19 points. Supreme Court judges were a huge part of that for many people,” Hawley said. “Our folks want a conservative Court. It’s a big reason they voted for President Trump.”

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