Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has taken a major step toward running for U.S. Senate with the creation of an exploratory committee to challenge Democrat Claire McCaskill.
Hawley is a newcomer to politics who took office as attorney general a little more than half a year ago, but GOP donors and politicians from Missouri have been urging him for months to run against McCaskill, who is considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators in 2018.
McCaskill faces a tough battle for re-election in Missouri, an increasingly red state where President Donald Trump swamped Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 19 percentage points in November.
McCaskill’s campaign manager David Kirby slammed Hawley for deciding to run for his next office “just a few months after promising Missourians he wouldn’t be a ladder-climbing politician” if they elected him as attorney general.
“That’s exactly what Missourians can’t stand about politics — it represents the worst kind of politician, and calls into question what other promises Josh Hawley will break,” Kirby said in a statement.
By filing paperwork to form an exploratory committee this week, Hawley will be able to start raising money for a possible Senate bid under federal election rules. McCaskill already has about $5 million cash on hand for her re-election campaign, but federal rules forbid Hawley from using any of the money he’s raised so far in Missouri to finance a U.S. Senate bid.
Hawley’s state campaign committee has ceased expenditures and fundraising while he considers becoming a federal candidate, said Hawley’s spokesman, Scott Paradise, in an email.
Republicans in Missouri hope to avoid a vicious primary battle that could weaken their eventual nominee. Many say they’re confident Hawley would dominate any Republican rivals.
“Josh Hawley is a once-in-a-generation political talent,” said former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth in an interview on Wednesday.
“There is zero chance that anybody else would be our nominee if Josh indeed runs,” Danforth said. “The support for him is so strong and so broad across the spectrum of Republicans in our state that nobody would have any reasonable chance of winning.”
Danforth, along with Republican megadonor David Humphreys and other prominent Missouri Republicans published an open letter months ago urging Hawley to jump into the race for U.S. Senate in 2018.
In response to the letter in April, Hawley said in a statement he was “working very hard at the job people elected me to do” and that it was “far too early to be thinking about any future election with so much pressing work to do.”
At the time, U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Ballwin Republican, was expected to announce her own bid for McCaskill’s seat. But Wagner said early last month she had decided against a run for Senate.
The news shocked many political observers in both Missouri and Washington, where Wagner had long been considered a favorite to challenge McCaskill. A spokesman for Wagner declined to comment Wednesday on the news Hawley had decided to form an exploratory committee.
After Wagner stepped aside, pressure grew on Hawley to take on McCaskill.
Vice President Mike Pence called Hawley about a week after Wagner announced her decision and talked to him about possibility of running against McCaskill.
“He is giving the race serious consideration,” Hawley’s spokesman, Paradise, said in an email after Pence’s call. “Josh has also received calls from others (candidates) interested in running and he is letting them know of his decision to consider the race.”
Buzz about Hawley’s growing interest in the Senate increased last week, when Hawley visited Washington, D.C., to meet with Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, Justice Department officials and others.
During his first seven months in office, Hawley has tackled two of McCaskill’s top watchdog priorities, filing a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and establishing a new initiative meant to fight human trafficking.
McCaskill told reporters on Tuesday that she welcomed Hawley’s efforts on trafficking. She also pointed out that she and Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio have been investigating trafficking through the website Backpage for two years now. The two senators introduced a bill on Tuesday that would strip federal liability protections from websites that “assist, support, or facilitate” violations of sex trafficking laws.
“I think frankly (Hawley) could get a lot of information just from us that he is seeking in his civil action,” McCaskill said.
Hawley attended Rockhurst High School in Kansas City and graduated from Yale Law School in 2006. Eventually he clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts at the U.S. Supreme Court before joining Roberts’ old law firm as an appellate attorney. He moved back to Missouri to teach law at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2011. During that time also served as senior counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, assisting in the successful lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
He had never run for office before entering the race for attorney general last year. After surviving a brutal Republican primary against a state senator from Columbia, he cruised to victory in the fall, winning more votes than any other person on the Missouri ballot, including President-elect Donald Trump.
“Josh will win the primary in a heartbeat,” said James Harris, Jefferson City-based Republican consultant, who noted that Hawley survived a brutal primary in 2016 and went onto win by a wide margin in the general election. “He’s that person your party base, donors and activists are looking for.”
Harris said the 37-year-old Hawley’s youth provides “a huge contrast” with 64-year-old McCaskill, who is seeking her third term in the Senate.
Hawley has been reluctant to jump into the Senate race because he loves his job as attorney general, Danforth said.
But Danforth said he and other Republicans have been trying to convince Hawley he’s badly needed to help fix a U.S. Senate “broken” by obstructionist Democrats.
“We practically have had to put him into a bag and drag him into being a candidate,” he said.
The Missouri Democratic Party scoffed in a statement that Hawley is “just climbing the political ladder,” and declared that “Missourians deserve better.”
Other candidates seeking the Republican nomination include Tony Monetti, a retired Air Force pilot from Warrensburg, Dan McQueen, a Desert Storm veteran who runs an aerospace consulting firm in Jefferson City, and Austin Petersen, a Kansas City man who unsuccessfully sought the Libertarian nomination for president last year.
State Rep. Paul Curtman, a former marine who represents Franklin County, has also formed an exploratory committee and state Rep. Marsha Haefner, who represents St. Louis County, has also expressed interest in the race.
Both Curtman and Haefner had previously planned to run for Wagner’s congressional seat until she decided not to enter the Senate race.
The Kansas City Star’s Jason Hancock contributed to this report from Jefferson City, Mo. Lowry of the Star reported from Topeka, Kan.