Politics

What’s Going on With the Missouri Senate Race?

Some have raised questions about GOP candidate Josh Hawley’s campaign

Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner has reportedly been asked to reconsider her decision not to run for Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Missouri is playing host to one of the year’s most competitive Senate races, and Attorney General Josh Hawley is supposed to be among the top Republican recruits. But some Republicans from the Show-Me State are starting to raise questions about his campaign’s performance so far. 

Republicans are still optimistic about their chances of defeating Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in a state President Donald Trump won by 20 points. And they’re generally still confident in Hawley, who garnered more votes than Trump in his run for attorney general in 2016.

“He won his first statewide race handily,” Missouri Sen. GOP Roy Blunt said Monday evening. “I think he’s a good candidate. I’m not concerned, but it’s a tough state and you have to work hard.”

Missouri is one of the few states where Republicans had appeared to avoid a costly and divisive primary. But Politico reported Friday that GOP Rep. Ann Wagner had been approached about reconsidering her decision not to run for Senate, raising concerns about whether Republicans were losing faith in Hawley. 

In recent days, some Republicans have been questioning Hawley’s fundraising and lack of campaign activity in the four months since he officially launched his campaign.

“This is supposed to be the campaign where we righted all the wrongs of Todd Akin and we exorcised all the demons of past campaigns or past attempts to beat Claire McCaskill,” one Missouri GOP consultant said. “And now people are wondering, ‘Are we really going to blow this again?’”

Avoiding a primary?

Missouri Republicans do not want to repeat the 2012 Senate race, where Rep. Todd Akin won a contested primary. His campaign imploded after he made a controversial comment that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy. McCaskill won that race by 16 points.

When Wagner announced she would not run for Senate last July, the attention shifted to Hawley. Some Republicans in the state noted that Wagner stepping aside meant they could avoid the divisive primary of campaigns past.

Former Missouri GOP chairman John Hancock said Wagner had told him she’d been asked to reconsider, but he doubted she would launch a primary challenge against Hawley. 

“I don’t think a hig- level primary’s in anybody’s best interest,” Hancock said. “I would be very surprised if we ended up with a primary of two major candidates.”

Wagner did not acknowledge a reporter who attempted to address her as she walked onto the House floor Monday night.

The news came shortly after reports of Missouri residents being contacted for what appeared to be a poll pitting Wagner against McCaskill. GOP operatives speculated it came from McCaskill’s campaign in an attempt to fuel rumors of discontent among Republicans. The senator admitted in her memoir that she  helped Akin through the GOP primary since he would be an easier opponent.

It’s still not clear where the poll came from. McCaskill’s campaign  and a source with Wagner’s House campaign both said they were not responsible.  

The news that Wagner was approached about reconsidering came shortly after Hawley made his own headline-grabbing comments about one of her pet issues — human trafficking. 

The Kansas City Star reported last week that Hawley, who has made combating sex trafficking a priority as attorney general, blamed the crime’s uptick on the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s.

“We have a human trafficking crisis in our state and in this city and in our country because people are willing to purchase women, young women, and treat them like commodities,” Hawley said at a private event with pastors in December, according to audio obtained by the Star.

“There is a market for it,” Hawley said. “Why is there? Because our culture has completely lost its way. The sexual revolution has led to exploitation of women on a scale that we would never have imagined, never have imagined.”

McCaskill and her campaign jumped on the comments as historically inaccurate, pointing out that the “sexual revolution” involved women using birth control.

“Another Todd Akin” was the subject line of fundraising missive from her campaign last Thursday night. “Hawley’s comments are ignorant, sexist and just plain backward.”

Several Republicans inside and outside the state were not concerned that Hawley’s comments would have any lasting effect, given the many social conservatives in the state.

“You will get more Missourians nodding their head to what he had to say … than you will have people disagreeing,” said Gregg Keller, a Missouri GOP consultant who is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union.

For some Republicans though, the broader concern was that Hawley was not out on the campaign trail, and didn’t have eye-popping fundraising numbers.

Broader concerns?

Hawley consultant Brad Todd dismissed criticisms about the candidate’s fundraising and lack of public campaign events.

“There’s plenty of time to campaign this year. Voters are not exactly clamoring for more electoral activity,” Todd said in an interview Friday afternoon. “He’s very active in the job of attorney general. He’s mustering the resources to wage a competitive campaign.”

Hawley had $1.19 million in cash on hand at the end of the most recent fundraising quarter, which ended on Dec. 31. McCaskill had more than $9 million on hand, according to her campaign. 

Hawley’s campaign noted he raised $958,000 in the last quarter, more than other Senate challengers. At the same point last cycle, Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Jason Kander had raised $870,000 with nearly $2.1 million in the bank, though he had been in the race for several more months then.

Some Republicans said money would not be a problem in the top-tier Senate race.

“No one is going to lose this Missouri Senate race for lack of funds,” Keller said.

Billionaire Richard Uihlein has already donated $2 million to Club for Growth Action Missouri, a super PAC backing Hawley.

Missouri Treasurer Eric Schmitt is the honorary chairman of another pro-Hawley super PAC, Missouri Rising Action. The group did not raise any funds in 2017, according to campaign finance documents.

“Josh’s campaign is off to a great start and we see the enthusiasm building on the ground here in Missouri,” Schmitt said in a statement.

But Hawley’s personal campaign numbers did raise some eyebrows among Show-Me State Republicans.

“I think people were able to explain away the lack of activity with the assumption that he was raising big-time dough,” a GOP consultant in Missouri said Friday. “When the big-time dough didn’t happen … this week has been kind of when everybody is starting to freak out.”

Hawley has not held any public campaign events since announcing his run in October, prompting Missouri Democrats to launch the website hidinghawley.com. Todd said Hawley has been active in public, holding events in his official capacity as attorney general.

“Voters think campaigns are too long as it is,” Todd said. “We’re never going to be all politics, all the time like Claire.”

McCaskill has been making the rounds in the state, holding 50 town hall meetings last year.

Missouri Democratic operative Jack Cardetti, who worked on McCaskill’s 2012 campaign, said her retail politics skills help her connect with voters.

Relating to voters, Cardetti said, “is what often puts her over the top in these elections.”

“Josh Hawley can’t do that,” he said. “And furthermore Josh Hawley isn’t even attempting to do that right now.”

Some rumors have been circulating among Missouri Republicans that Hawley may not have been active yet because he was having second thoughts about running.

Todd dismissed such discussions as “nonsense.”

“It’s a joke,” Todd said.

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