The leading contestants in this year’s Missouri U.S. Senate race are in a battle to define each other to suit their own purposes.

Incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill contends Republican frontrunner and Attorney General Josh Hawley wants to strip health care protections.

Hawley says McCaskill has failed to support a qualified U.S. Supreme Court nominee.  His campaign released a statement recently noting she finally responded after he continually challenged her to a debate about the nomination.

“After weeks of ducking, Senator McCaskill has acknowledged she ‘wants’ a debate. So, what’s stopping her? She should stop saying one thing and doing another,” said Hawley. “Missourians deserve a Senator who will speak up about the issues, including our new Supreme Court nominee. I’m ready to debate, but Senator McCaskill still needs to accept an offer.”

Hawley has been calling on McCaskill to reveal her stance on Brett Kavanaugh, the nominee to replace the retired Justice Anthony Kennedy on the high court.

Many political experts don’t expect McCaskill to vote for Kavanaugh even though he’s the choice of President Trump, who carried the state by 19 points in the 2016 election.  McCaskill opposed the confirmation of the Trump’s previous nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch last year.

By focusing on the high court nomination, Hawley would seem to be banking on McCaskill being out of step with Missourians and vulnerable in the Senate confirmation vote that could take place three weeks before November’s election.

For her part, McCaskill has said it’ll take her several weeks to formulate a position on Kavanaugh because of his extensive paper trail.  Kavanaugh spent five years in the White House of Republican President George W. Bush and 12 years as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  McCaskill says it’ll take her time to read the decisions he’s issued and speeches he’s made which together are said to number in the hundreds.

Peverill Squire, a Political Scientist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, isn’t convinced McCaskill’s vote on the Supreme Court nomination will be critical to the Senate race.

“I think Democrats are going to be motivated to go to the polls in November for reason in addition to those around the Supreme Court nomination,” said Squire.  “I think by the time the election rolls around, regardless of what happens with the nomination, there will be plenty of Democrats and Republicans motivated to show up.”

While Hawley is focused on the Supreme Court nominee, McCaskill is trying to pin down Hawley as anti-healthcare.

As the state Attorney General, Hawley joined 19 other Republican-led states to file a lawsuit in February claiming the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is unconstitutional.  The suit contends the elimination by Congress last year of the tax penalty for those who don’t purchase health insurance renders the law unconstitutional.  The Trump administration filed a court document last month siding with the lawsuit, saying consumer protections such as the one for preexisting conditions, are no longer valid.

Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation released in 2015 showed that 30% of non-elderly people in Missouri had preexisting conditions that could have been declined prior to the ACA.  Hawley says preexisting conditions should be covered but defends his part in the lawsuit against the healthcare law saying it needs to be overhauled to bring costs down.

McCaskill said she does not believe Hawley will work to keep protections for people with pre-existing conditions and points to his support for the lawsuit as proof.

Tight polls

Recent polling shows the Senate race continues to be tight.  A survey this month by the Republican-affiliated group Remington Research showed Hawley with a two-point edge, while one from mid-June by Democratic-aligned Global Strategy Group had McCaskill with a six-point lead.

Columbia College Political Science Professor Terry Smith notes the latter poll is outside the margin of error which he thinks is a good sign for McCaskill and a challenge for Hawley.

“If Hawley ever had the kind of lead that McCaskill is showing in this Global Strategy Group poll, then I think that he could win,” said Smith.  “But I think he’s got to do that.  If he’s within the margin of error, I don’t think he’s going to win.”

Squire from the University of Missouri thinks McCaskill is in a relatively good position to retain her Senate seat but notes there could be political changes as the election get closer.

“It a Democratic year, we’ll see who turns out,” Squire said.  “Given both state and national politics, there are going to be unexpected events that we don’t anticipate that may shift voters one way or another.”