By Jim Ellis
July 10, 2017 — The Missouri Senate race transformed itself earlier this week when Rep. Ann Wagner (R-St. Louis County) announced that she would not challenge Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), and there is an update as to what may happen next.
The congresswoman had been expected to make a July campaign announcement, but her statement contained a twist that none had anticipated. With a political fire drill now underway to respond to a new campaign sans Wagner, the early spotlight focuses on at least two viable GOP options.
Attorney General Josh Hawley is the most talked about potential candidate. Several prominent Show Me State Republicans initiated a move, which former US Sen. John Danforth, ex-Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, and major campaign donor and former US Ambassador Sam Fox led, that openly encouraged Hawley to run even when it was thought that Wagner would become a candidate.
Hawley burst upon the political scene with his run for attorney general last year. Then at 36 years of age, he had never run for office prior to his statewide bid, but had previously founded and directed the Missouri Liberty Project, is a former clerk to US Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, and, as an attorney, participated in several key Supreme Court cases including the landmark Hobby Lobby case that allows closely held corporations to object to certain government regulations on religious grounds.
Josh Hawley won the 2016 Republican primary with an impressive 64-36 percent victory margin over state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, and then trounced Democratic former prosecutor Teresa Hensley, 61-39 percent, to succeed Chris Koster (D) who had vacated the position to run unsuccessfully for governor. Hawley’s quick rise to political prominence and his demonstrated vote-getting ability are the primary reasons he is attractive to many GOP leaders.
But, he would have some obstacles to overcome. Part of his 2016 campaign approach included attacking the “professional politicians” who jump from one office to another. So quickly running for Senate after being elected AG would open himself up to severe criticism from Sen. McCaskill and her well-funded political allies…with an argument that may well strike a chord with voters.
For his part, Hawley has been cagey. He still maintains he wants to do the job for which the people just elected him, but simultaneously never closes the door upon entering the Senate campaign. Though the timing may not be to his liking, the political set-up may never get better. Sen. McCaskill, who is a reliable liberal vote, is vulnerable before a state electorate that is turning ever more conservative, and, fresh from a landslide electoral victory, his political position may well be at its apex. If Hawley perceives he has a united Republican/right-of-center base from which to move forward into a tough race against the two-term senator, it may be difficult to find a time and situation that would better suit him for such a run.
Four-term Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Harrisonville/Columbia) says that she, too, is considering jumping into the Senate campaign now that Rep. Wagner is no longer a presumed statewide candidate. Hartzler came to the House in the Republican wave year of 2010, defeating 34-year incumbent and former House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton (D), 50-45 percent, despite being outspent 2:1. Previously, she had served three terms in the Missouri House of Representatives.
Sen. McCaskill came to national campaign notoriety during her 2012 re-election run when she and political allies ran an estimated $1.7 million in ads designed to help Republican primary candidate Todd Akin; casting the St. Louis suburban congressman as the most conservative candidate in the race – a winning strategy for a multi-candidate Midwest Republican primary. McCaskill knew that Rep. Akin would be her easiest opponent and wanted him in the general election. Despite never leading in any poll, Akin, largely on the backs of the McCaskill and aligned PAC ads since he had little funding of his own, scored a six-point win over two prominent GOP opponents.
When the congressman subsequently made ridiculous statements in post-primary interviews, her unique-at-the-time involvement in the opposite party’s primary proved prescient. The final general election result saw Sen. McCaskill scoring a commanding 55-39 percent victory margin.
McCaskill may again want to take a page from her own playbook in the coming Republican primary, but she will have to be even more clever this time. Since such involvement is no longer a new tactic, and neither Hawley nor Hartzler will be so easily prone to fall into her trap, next year’s contest will strike a very different tone.
We can expect much more during the coming weeks to unfold about this race, likely one of the most competitive wire-to-wire contests that we will see in 2018.