President Donald Trump’s voters in Missouri could decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate next year.
And that’ll be a problem for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is largely seen as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent up for election in 2018.
But Trump also has become a delicate political issue for Republicans’ top recruit to take on McCaskill, Attorney General Josh Hawley. He has faced scrutiny from conservatives about his absence during Trump’s visit, as well as the full-throated criticism of the president by one of Hawley’s most prominent supporters.
Because the race could determine control of the Senate, dark-money groups on both sides have already begun paying for attacks against both candidates more than a year before the general election. Both candidates will need votes from Trump supporters to win in 2018, and both could face political headaches if the president’s interest in the Missouri race continues.
Trump called out Democratic McCaskill by name during his speech on tax policy last week and told the crowd in Springfield that unless McCaskill backs his tax cuts, they need to “vote her out of office.”
McCaskill’s office and campaign would not respond to Trump’s jab or comment for this story.
In recent months, she’s been strategically making overt appeals to Trump voters in a state that went for him by 19 points in November, chastising fellow Democrats for judging Trump voters and emphasizing her willingness to work with the president.
“She’s walking a tightrope right now and she’s going to continue to walk a tightrope throughout this election,” said Robynn Kuhlmann, a political scientist at the University of Central Missouri.
Meira Bernstein, spokeswoman for the Missouri Democratic Party, said in an email that McCaskill has been clear that “she will work with President Trump when it is in the best interest of Missouri and that she will stand up to him when it’s not.” She accused Hawley of being ambiguous about where he stands on Trump’s presidency.
Bob Salera, the spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, pointed to McCaskill’s vote against Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and her vote against the Trump-backed healthcare plan as proof that McCaskill hasn’t lived up to her promises of bipartisanship.
“And folks in Missouri are going to notice that. People of Missouri want a senator who’s going to work with the president… But all Claire McCaskill wants to do is obstruct,” he said. “President Trump won Missouri by 19 points and Claire McCaskill’s doing everything she can to alienate that strong majority.”
For Hawley, being on vacation while the president visited Springfield is just one factor sparking anger from some conservatives.
Ahead of the president’s visit, former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth, who spearheaded the effort to recruit Hawley to the Senate race, called on Republicans both in Missouri and across the country to disavow Trump.
Jamie Allman, a conservative radio host in St. Louis, said last week that Hawley “needs to separate himself from Danforth and that vapid, gratuitous criticism of President Trump” and railed against the attorney general for continuing with a family vacation during the president’s visit.
Allman has hosted potential Hawley rival Austin Petersen and praised state Rep. Paul Curtman, another candidate weighing a run, as “on board with President Trump,” in contrast to Hawley.
Hawley, who is exploring a Senate bid, has refused to comment on Danforth’s critique of the president, but he has subtly tried to distance himself by heaping praise on the president’s pursuit of federal tax cuts as a “a bold plan to change course and give working Missourians a chance to move ahead” in an op-ed published by Fox News.
Danforth responded to concerns that he was damaging Hawley’s potential candidacy in an interview Wednesday with St. Louis Public Radio by saying that he didn’t “think anybody could reasonably confuse Josh Hawley with Donald Trump” in terms of political style.
Hawley’s political spokesman, Scott Paradise, pointed to McCaskill’s Trump problem without mentioning the controversy surrounding Danforth.
“The President doesn’t vote in Missouri but millions of people who want his agenda to pass do,” Paradise said in an email. “Claire McCaskill’s continued refusal to do the will of Trump voters in Missouri will make re-election difficult — and she will deserve that.”
At least one of Hawley’s potential competitors for the GOP nomination has sought to capitalize on the controversy. Petersen, a Kansas City activist who unsuccessfully sought the Libertarian nomination for president last year, has pondered whether Hawley agrees with Trump and has emphasized his willingness to support Trump.
“When you hear Jamie Allman saying he doesn’t like what’s happening with Danforth and all those guys, that’s your typical Missouri voter right there,” Petersen said last week.
Petersen said he’s been pleased with Trump’s first year in office.
“When he picked James Mattis as his secretary of defense, I was a little mad because that was going to be my secretary of defense pick,” Petersen said.
Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the organization expects Trump to play an outsized role in the Missouri race.
The last few weeks, she said, were more damaging for Hawley than McCaskill.
“When your top sort of mentor or recruiter comes out and says something, it’s kind of stunning to watch him (Hawley) dodge those questions,” Passalacqua said. “And I don’t think people are going to take kindly to a dodge or an op-ed that says nothing.”
James Harris, a GOP strategist who supports Hawley, said that Allman has a strong listenership in the St. Louis area but that support from Danforth and others will continue to be more beneficial to Hawley than the scorn of one radio host.
“Jamie Allman has an audience, but I would say respectfully Sen. Danforth has a larger megaphone,” Harris said.
“I think there’s other things that would be more important to a conservative voter than ‘Commentator X’ said ‘X, Y, Z.’ ”
Harris said McCaskill will be able to raise money off Trump’s attacks, but in the end the president will be an asset to Missouri Republicans in 2018.
He said Trump’s role in the race has “more upside than downside” for Republicans, but he also noted that the “Republican candidate, whether it’s Josh Hawley or somebody else — you can’t control what the president will say or do.”