Josh Hawley, with praise from Breitbart, challenging McCaskill for U.S. Senate seat

Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill spoke with Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley in August at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. Hawley on Tuesday announced that he would seek McCaskill’s seat in 2018.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill spoke with Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley in August at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. Hawley on Tuesday announced that he would seek McCaskill’s seat in 2018. AP

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is done exploring.

In a campaign video Tuesday, the top Republican recruit for the race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate officially announced his intention to challenge Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill in 2018.

“This isn’t something we were planning to do. But we believe we have to do all we can to win a better future for our country,” Hawley says in the video as he’s joined by his wife, Erin, and two sons.

Hawley’s announcement, however, was hardly spontaneous. It comes after a more than two-month exploratory campaign and an even longer period of encouragement by prominent Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth and Vice President Mike Pence.

Democrats have questioned the idea that Hawley was exploring a bid rather than campaigning when he formed his campaign committee in August. Hawley formed a joint fundraising committee with the National Republican Senatorial Committee last month.

McCaskill’s campaign came out Tuesday morning with an aggressive statement accusing Hawley of lying about his Senate campaign and failing to uphold his promises as attorney general.

“Since taking office in January, Josh Hawley has proven to be the worst type of politician. He broke his promise not to climb the political ladder. He broke his promise to create a Public Corruption Unit to crack down on the pay-to-play culture of Jefferson City. He lied about whether he would live in Jefferson City, as the law requires. And he lied for nearly two months about whether he was running for Senate,” David Kirby, McCaskill’s campaign manager, said in a statement.

“We applaud Josh for coming clean about his intention to run and look forward to contrasting his record of broken promises with Claire's record of listening to Missourians and breaking through gridlock to get things done for them,” Kirby said.

Hawley’s official announcement also comes shortly after The Star reported that Hawley had been reaching out to former White House strategist Steve Bannon amid speculation that Bannon, executive chairman of the conservative website Breitbart, may back another candidate.

Bannon’s site praised Hawley in a Sunday article, calling him a “hardcore conservative who will not go along to get along like (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell wants in Washington.”

Hawley has faced criticism from some prominent Missouri conservatives, including former state Republican chair Ed Martin, for his connection to Danforth, who called on Republicans to cut ties with President Donald Trump in a nationally published opinion piece in August. Hawley skipped the president’s visit to Missouri later that month for a previously scheduled family vacation.

Hawley, 37, is a former professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. He was elected last year to his first term as attorney general by a 17-point margin.

During his short time in office, Hawley has filed a lawsuit against three of the country’s largest opioid manufacturers and launched an initiative meant to combat human trafficking.

Both of those are pet issues for McCaskill, who is heading up an opioid investigation in the Senate and has been an outspoken proponent for federal legislation to curb human trafficking.

Timmy Teepell, Hawley’s senior adviser, said in a statement that Hawley’s focus would remain on his duties as attorney general rather than the race, which promises to be one of the most competitive and most expensive in the country.

“He will begin making campaign stops and a more formal campaign kickoff next year — when there’s actually an election,” Teepell said.

Teepell said that internal polling indicates it’s “going to be a competitive race" and added that he’s “sure Claire has the same numbers.”

Before his election as attorney general, Hawley was part of the legal team for Hobby Lobby in its successful lawsuit against a contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2014 that closely held corporations, such as Hobby Lobby, had a religious right to be exempted from the mandate.

Hawley’s campaign video attacks McCaskill on the issue of Supreme Court justices. McCaskill voted against Trump’s nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, after calling some of his past rulings disturbing.

“She’s been wrong on every Supreme Court nominee for the last 11 years. She doesn’t represent us,” Hawley, a former clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts, states in the ad.

The Republican field also includes Austin Petersen, a Kansas City man who unsuccessfully sought the Libertarian nomination for president last year, and military veterans Courtland Sykes and Tony Monetti.

Sykes, a Navy veteran who moved to Missouri this year, released a more than nine minute video slamming Hawley Tuesday morning as an “effete, clubby, stuff-shirted, big-money RINO” who is handpicked by McConnell and Danforth to “keep Washington’s swamp swampy and to keep liberalism and the federal monster alive forevermore by killing President Trump’s entire MAGA agenda.”

Hawley, who has the backing of Republican mega donors David Humphreys and former Ambassador Sam Fox, is expected to hold a cash advantage over other Republicans when candidates file their campaign finance reports this month.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3