In Missouri, it’s been an open secret that Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, less than a year into his first term, had long ago decided to take another step up the political ladder.
Earlier this week, he confirmed it.
In a video posted to YouTube and Facebook, Hawley announced his 2018 candidacy for the United States Senate.
If he wins the primary contest — which he surely will — the red-blooded conservative Yale Law alum will face fierce Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, a savvy political force who has maintained her powerful perch in a bellwether battleground turned reliable Republican stronghold.
Unfortunately for her and her constituency, McCaskill’s time as a no-nonsense moderate is almost up. Hawley’s entrance will surely be her downfall. In a state that went nearly 20 points for President Donald Trump last November, only a severely flawed Republican nominee — like Todd Akin in 2012 — will save the Democrats.
Without the ability to ride the coattails of a popular Democratic president, a midterm election will be difficult for McCaskill in a way her prior re-election fight was not. And unlike Akin, Hawley is a smooth political operator with the right tact, the right mindset and the right political philosophy to win the election by historic margins.
But there’s still hope.
Trump, as popular as he may have once been, has seen his poll numbers slip since taking office. If this trend continues, or, as could happen with a president under an increasingly aggressive FBI investigation, get much worse, Hawley could lose by mere association alone. Trump may be relatively well-liked in Missouri compared to the nation as a whole, but his rating, which sat in the 40-to-50-percent range in July, is nothing extraordinary.
Further, although Hawley is the odds-on favorite to claim the Republican nomination, nothing is set in stone. In 2012, McCaskill purposefully used campaign ads to manipulate the Republican electorate into nominating Akin, a conservative extremist, over his more moderate competition. In a Politico Magazine piece, she explains the strategy and how it worked. The title tells it all: “How I Helped Todd Akin Win — So I Could Beat Him Later.”
If McCaskill is looking for an Akin redux, she already has the perfect candidate.
Courtland Sykes is a bonafide conservative already running for the Republican nomination. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a political scientist familiar with his campaign pledges called them “Trump inspired populism on steroids.” Sykes has already posted an early political ad detailing his unwavering support for the president’s agenda. (Watch it. It’s really something else.)
Sykes’s pro-Trump candidacy puts Hawley in a difficult position. In order to wrap up the Republican nomination, the attorney general can’t afford to alienate the large portion of the Missouri electorate that still supports the current president. On the flip side, Hawley must keep himself separated from Trump in the minds of voters enough so that the president’s so-so approval in the state does not tank his general election chances. The 2018 midterms could hinge on turnout, and those most impassioned by the current state of affairs seem to be left-leaning voters, not Republicans.
However, Hawley is already exemplifying the dexterity necessary to deftly navigate this changing environment.
Hawley’s long-time mentor, former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, is an ardent Trump critic. Hawley refuses to disavow these attacks, despite calls from party leadership compelling him to do so, but neither does he fully endorse them. This shows his ability to thread the needle at just the right point, ensuring he alienates no one.
The attorney general is playing it smart. Already, he’s attempting to cozy up to Stephen Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, in order to avert potential populist challengers funded by the alt-right. Seemingly in response to Hawley’s conversations with Bannon, Breitbart News, which Bannon runs, has given his campaign positive coverage, including him in the website’s “league of extraordinary Senate candidates.”
All this adds up to a sorry state of affairs for McCaskill. There may be some glimmer of hope for the overly optimistic, but for everyone else it’s time to face the facts — the moment Hawley declared his candidacy, Missouri Democrats lost. ■