The same day that Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley signaled he wants to run against Sen. Claire McCaskill, a group run by one of the Democrats’ best-known political warriors went to the Federal Election Commission and filed a complaint against him.
The timing of the complaint shows how anxious national Democrats are about McCaskill, one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats facing re-election next year, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report, a publication that analyzes U.S. Senate and governors races.
The filing is a message from Democrats that, “’We’re watching your every move, we’re watching every dime you spend, and by the way you'll have to pay for legal counsel to defend this,’” Duffy said.
“The other point of all of this is to step on Hawley’s honeymoon, the couple days of positive press he should get out of an announcement, to pour cold water on that,” she said. “This is not going to be a nice race. This is going to be pretty nasty.”
Hawley’s spokesman, Scott Paradise, dismissed the complaint as “frivolous and entirely without merit” in an email to McClatchy.
“It’s exactly what you would expect from a desperate D.C. politician,” Paradise said.
Paradise said Wednesday Hawley intends to set up a committee to explore a run against McCaskill. The American Democracy Legal Fund filed the nine-page complaint with the FEC the same day.
The Democratic fund is a creation of David Brock, an influential Democratic operative and major donor who also founded the liberal watchdog group Media Matters and the super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. Both were fierce defenders of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate and sharp critics of President Donald Trump.
McCaskill, a two-term incumbent, faces a tough re-election battle next year in Missouri, a state President Donald Trump carried by nearly 19 percentage points in November.
Although he’s only been in office about six months, Hawley has faced intense pressure from GOP donors and politicians to run against McCaskill.
Since Election Day, Hawley has raised nearly $1.2 million, including $1 million from Missouri GOP mega-donor David Humphreys and his sister, Sarah Atkins.
On December 7, the day the siblings made their donations to Hawley, Humphreys wrote similarly large checks to other Missouri Republicans, including newly elected Gov. Eric Greitens and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, and to the Missouri Republican Party.
A spokesman for Humphreys company Tamko did not immediately respond to request for comment on Thursday, but Humphreys’ attorney, Joe Rebein, told the Kansas City Star in April that Humphreys made big donations on December 7 because he knew Missouri law was about to change the next day, setting hard limits on certain campaign contributions. Until then, there were no limits on individual contributions.
“Because he was aware of the imminence of the change, Mr. Humphreys made several contributions” on December 7, Rebein wrote in a letter to the Star at the time.
Hawley’s state campaign committee has spent nearly $300,000 so far in 2017, with one-third of the money going to two Washington, D.C.-area media companies: $75,000 for OnMessage Inc. and $30,000 for First Tuesday, listed at the same address, according to an analysis by McClatchy of data from the Missouri Ethics Commission. The bulk of the expenditures were for media production, media consulting and media buys.
OnMessage’s Brad Todd, a consultant for Hawley’s attorney general campaign, also will be Hawley’s consultant for any Senate run, according to a report last month in Politico’s Morning Score. Ninety percent of the $8.7 million Hawley’s state campaign committee spent before Election Day last year went to OnMessage Inc. for advertising and research.
The complaint filed Wednesday alleges that Hawley improperly used his state campaign committee’s spending on OnMessage and other companies after his November election to get better-known and help his prospective bid for U.S. Senate without filing as a federal candidate.
The complaint also alleges that Hawley violated federal laws that require any money spent to “test the waters” of a federal candidacy to comply with federal campaign finance restrictions on corporate money, union money and the individual contribution limits.