State Attorney General Josh Hawley’s formal entrance into the 2018 Missouri Senate race this week brings more clarity to the election.
The Republican, who was sworn into public office for the very first time just 10 months ago, will carry the baggage of his campaign narrative that “Jefferson City is full of career politicians just climbing the ladder, using one office to get another”.
But with good name recognition and the backing of the GOP establishment, Hawley is the leading candidate to take on incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill.
According to Columbia College Political Science Professor Terry Smith, the race will likely be determined by the standing of President Trump when November 2018 rolls around.
“If the Trump administration is in great trouble, or is in the process of collapse, then I think Republicans not just in Missouri, but everywhere, are going to have problems,” said Smith. “If the Trump administration prospers, then I think the Trump coattails will continue to be strong, like they were in 2016.”
On closer look, Hawley would seem to have even closer ties to Trump than the president’s coattails. Breitbart News, the mouthpiece of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, dished out abundant praise on Hawley while naming its preferred candidates for next year’s election.
The rambunctious, hard right outlet said, “While GOP establishment forces may try to sell it as though they like Missouri’s attorney general Josh Hawley in the primary there, it’s conservatives who are more fired up about Hawley’s campaign with many top grassroots leaders telling Breitbart News privately in the past few days that the likely guy to face off against Sen. Claire McCaskill in November 2018 is a hardcore conservative who will not go along to get along like McConnell wants in Washington.”
Hawley is enjoying support from both sides of the Republican split, having also received lavish praise from establishment heavyweight John Danforth. The former Missouri Senator urged Hawley to run against McCaskill early on, while he also wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post that slammed Trump as “the most divisive president in our history”.
Smith thinks Hawley could be in an advantageous spot, but says he’s faced with a balancing act. “Hawley’s got a tight rope to walk here to make sure he keeps the money flowing, and the support from the state and national Republicans. But at the same time, he wants to keep the Bannon/Breitbart folks happy.”
Jennifer E. Duffy with the Cook Political Report follows U.S. Senate and Governors elections. She moved the Missouri contest to the toss-up category when Hawley announced an exploratory committee in early August. It’s one of only five Senate elections that Cook Political has determined to be so competitive.
Duffy thinks Hawley’s backing from both factions of the party gives him special standing among Republican candidates. “Hawley may turn out to be something of a unicorn in that he will be the candidate that both the establishment and Bannon agree on”, said Duffy. “There aren’t going to be many.”
Noting that she has questions about the apparent endorsement, Duffy wonders if Hawley agreed to follow Bannon’s stated demand that all his candidates disavow Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell.
Assuming the support is genuine, she thinks Hawley can take satisfaction that Bannon is not out there recruiting a primary opponent to him. “I suspect that Hawley will spend a lot of his time talking about McCaskill, and why she needs to be replaced, as opposed to really dealing with the increasing schism in the Republican Party.”
Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales has also rated the Missouri Senate race as a toss-up.
Smith and Duffy are in agreement that Claire McCaskill won’t face the favorable conditions she helped create in 2012, where her campaign ads helped her secure the opponent she desired in Todd Akin. McCaskill beat Aiken by 15 points in an environment that favored Republicans in Missouri that year.
Smith and Duffy also agree McCaskill’s path to victory is clearly defined. Smith says it requires her to hold onto her urban Democratic base and pick off votes where she can in heavily Republicans rural Missouri. “She’ll be fine in St. Louis and Kansas City, Columbia,” said Smith. “And she needs to cut her losses everywhere else.”
Duffy concurs with the formula, but contends McCaskill will face stiffer headwinds in 2018. “I think that the state has become more Republican since the last time she was on the ballot,” Duffy said. “I think it’s going to be harder for her in rural areas.”
The contest is expected to be among the most expensive general election races next year, if not priciest.
Duffy says both candidates will receive strong financial backing from their national parties, but thinks Hawley will first have to convince Republicans he can raise big money on his own.
“The money won’t come quickly. And in fact, I’m fairly certain that he probably has some targets that he has to reach to really get their attention.”