Midterms

Inside the campaign that defeated Claire McCaskill

It was late September and 10,000 people in a basketball arena in southwestern Missouri were screaming Brett Kavanaugh’s name.

Josh Hawley backed away from the podium as the wave of sound hit. He could feel the stage shaking.

“KA-VA-NAUGH, KA-VA-NAUGH, KA-VA-NAUGH!”

The 38-year-old Republican Senate candidate turned to President Donald Trump, who stood by his side in the packed JQH arena at Missouri State University in Springfield.

“Wow,” Hawley said.

“Wow,” Trump said back.

Hawley’s campaign manager, Kyle Plotkin, was standing in the back of the rally, near the TV cameras and journalists, thinking to himself that he’d never seen anything like this before in Republican politics.

It was like a rock concert. The wild energy of the crowd, the deafening volume.

“This is significant,” Plotkin thought to himself.

For the first time in a bitterly fought campaign, Plotkin felt it in his bones: Claire McCaskill was done.

This is the story of how Josh Hawley, a man who won his first election two years ago, defeated a veteran campaigner seeking her third Senate term. It is based on interviews with more than a dozen senior operatives and strategists from both parties — in Missouri and Washington, DC.

Together, those operatives describe a campaign that managed to pull off what some thought impossible: Unite the Trumpian and country club wings of the Republican Party. It delivered the win for Hawley, and it has all but destroyed the Democratic Party’s foothold in Missouri.

THE WRONG SIDE OF TRUMP

He wasn’t even supposed to be the one to run against her.

That was Republican Congresswoman Ann Wagner, the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee.

But Wagner had a problem. She had disavowed Trump during the 2016 campaign, after the revelation of an Access Hollywood tape that captured Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women.

Hawley had earned even more votes than Trump statewide in 2016. As a newcomer to politics, he had no lengthy record for McCaskill to attack, as Wagner did.

But his status as the standard-bearer for the Trump movement in the Midwest wasn’t assured.

Even though Hawley had cast himself as an outsider in his successful 2016 run for attorney general, in many ways, he was a darling of the GOP establishment.

A square-jawed product of Stanford University and Yale Law School, he had clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and helped represent Hobby Lobby in its successful lawsuit against Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate.

In the spring of 2017, former Sen. Jack Danforth, an early mentor of Hawley’s, spearheaded an effort to recruit Hawley to challenge McCaskill.

Danforth’s role was to encourage Hawley to run publicly — and to discourage others from entering the race. Also involved in the effort to recruit Hawley were Steven Law, a former chief of staff for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, former ambassador Sam Fox, former GOP Sen. Kit Bond, and Missouri’s sitting Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.

What Republican leaders feared most was a repeat of 2012, when a vicious eight-way primary led to the nomination of GOP Rep. Todd Akin. Akin would go on to lose to McCaskill after he remarked that pregnancy could not result from “legitimate rape.”

“Claire had been kind of like Moby Dick, the one who got away,” said Brad Todd, the media consultant for Hawley’s campaign. “And I think everyone who runs Republican campaigns felt like she stole it in 2012 and that was a wrong that needed to be righted.”

McCaskill, Todd knew, was vulnerable. Her approval rating hovered at 45 percent. Trump had re-energized the GOP base. Republicans didn’t want to blow their chance. Not this time.

Wagner withdrew her name in early July 2017. A week later, Vice President Mike Pence personally reached out to Hawley to urge him to run in a phone call brokered by Blunt and Nick Ayers, Pence’s chief of staff. Hawley announced an exploratory committee the following month.

COURTING BANNON

The trick that Hawley had to pull off was to convince both the populist, Trumpian wing of the Republican Party and the country club establishment that he was secretly one of them — and that he was just humoring the other guys.

The support from Danforth and other party elders tied Hawley to the establishment early in the race, prompting suspicion from some in Trump’s base.

It didn’t help that when Trump first came to Missouri that August, Hawley didn’t show up.

His political mentor Danforth had just published a column bashing Trump and calling on all Republicans to disassociate themselves from the president’s divisive tactics “for the sake of our party and our nation.”

The words could be read as directed personally at Hawley, the young man Danforth hailed as “a once-in a generation Republican candidate.”

Hawley took a drubbing on conservative talk radio in Missouri for skipping Trump’s visit for a “family vacation.” And he refused to comment about Danforth’s criticism of Trump. Even Wagner slammed Hawley for shunning the president.

Former state GOP Chair Ed Martin was mulling his own run. He had emerged as a pro-Trump voice on cable news panels, and said publicly that if Hawley was unable to condemn Danforth’s comments, he should not run against McCaskill.

Hawley needed to shore up support with the populist wing of the GOP, and fast. Within weeks, his nascent campaign reached out to Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and then-Breitbart executive, to ensure there would be no rebellion from the right.

“The danger was a Trump-esque fire-breather comes in and gets to Josh’s right culturally, so getting Bannon involved and getting the Trump MAGA stamp of approval early on was very important,” said Gregg Keller, a St. Louis-based Republican strategist.

Bannon met with Hawley twice early in the campaign. The meetings were set up by Dave Bossie, the president of Citizens United and Trump’s 2016 deputy campaign manager. Bannon came away from the meetings convinced that Hawley would support the Trump agenda and that he was the one person who could be competitive against McCaskill.

Bannon agreed to stay out of Hawley’s way even as he engaged in a self-described war against McConnell-backed candidates.

“He had tremendous support from Trump-type people who saw him and said ‘Hey, although Mitch McConnell signed off on him, he’s actually one of us,’” Bannon told McClatchy.

McConnell wasn’t pleased. Especially when Hawley declined to say whether he would vote for McConnell as majority leader despite the fact that the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate GOP leadership, had already established a joint committee to fundraise on Hawley’s behalf.

“Hawley and other candidates around the country — not just Hawley — created this whole façade that didn’t exist: that Bannon was this big kingmaker. And he wasn’t,” said Chris Pack, spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to McConnell.

Hawley’s top campaign consultant, Brad Todd, defended the outreach to Bannon.

“There were a lot of people who were not happy he met with Steve Bannon. There were a lot of people who were not happy he met with Mitch McConnell,” Todd said.

“But our answer was the same to both groups: ‘If someone wants to help me beat Claire McCaskill, I’m going to talk to them,’” he said. “Josh was disciplined in keeping his eye on the ball on how hard it would be to pull off an upset … Trying to keep the entire right together.”

SOLDIERING FOR TRUMP

In addition to courting Bannon, Hawley also worked to persuade Martin that he would be a loyal soldier for Trump.

“When I made the noise I made, I heard from a lot of folks, including Josh, about ‘Hey what’s your concern?’” Martin said.

Martin was blunt. He told Hawley he wouldn’t win if he didn’t take on the Trump mantle, Martin said.

The next time Trump came to Missouri, Hawley was on the tarmac to enthusiastically greet him.

The president endorsed Hawley a minute into his speech in St. Charles. Missouri’s GOP primary was still nearly a year away.

Todd said that Hawley’s team was “a little surprised” that Trump went that far so soon, “but not a lot surprised.”

Trump’s endorsement legitimized Hawley in the eyes of Trump’s base in Missouri.

“Josh wasn’t my guy. He wasn’t my guy going in,” said Ben Murphy, the creative director of America First Missouri PAC, a group formed for the sole purpose of promoting Trump’s agenda in Missouri.

“The guys who recruited him, let’s face it, were not big Trump supporters and that’s being kind,” Murphy said. “But as long as the president is telling us with open eyes that Josh is the guy… He’s the guy. There’s no choice here.”

Even Danforth, who advised GOP officials to avoid being seen in public with Trump last year, now agrees that embracing the president was a political necessity for Hawley.

“He had to do it, and he was probably more inclined to do it than I was,” Danforth said. “But it probably worked out better for him than it would for me… I’m notoriously anti-Trump.”

GREITENS SPLINTERS GOP

With the president’s backing, Hawley had a clear path to a general election showdown with McCaskill. Missouri Republican Party officials were determined to avoid the mistakes of 2012 and thought they had finally achieved the party unity that would allow them to defeat McCaskill.

Then came Eric Greitens. The state’s Republican governor was accused of sexual misconduct and indicted on felony invasion of privacy charges. The scandal dominated Missouri politics for the first half of 2018 and threatened to sink Hawley’s candidacy.

James Harris, a Jefferson City-based Republican consultant, said that the scandal cramped Hawley’s ability to campaign. He skipped county GOP events and left the state party’s annual convention in Kansas City early to avoid being seen with Greitens in public.

“Early on, some said why is he (Hawley) not out campaigning more…Greitens was intentionally picking events where Josh was scheduled to go. Then the attorney general had to step back,” Harris said.

Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, also had run as an outsider. Some of his Republican supporters saw efforts to force him from office as an establishment conspiracy — led by Hawley, who was investigating him as attorney general. The party braced for a prolonged impeachment process that could stretch into November.

Once again, it looked like Republicans’ infighting in Missouri might cost them a Senate seat, to Democrats’ glee. Republicans bemoaned McCaskill’s uncanny luck. Keller joked that McCaskill must use a voodoo doll in her Senate races.

But the following month, Greitens resigned after his attorneys struck a deal with the prosecutor’s office to drop charges. The deal saved Greitens from prosecution. It may have also saved Hawley’s prospects in the Senate race.

“Had he (Greitens) not resigned, I think it becomes all but impossible for Josh Hawley to win this race,” Keller said.

STILL, THAT MCCASKILL CASH

With Greitens gone, and any serious challengers out of the way, Hawley and outside GOP groups supporting him were free to go on offense against McCaskill.

Hawley’s campaign, managed by Plotkin and by Todd’s Washington-area firm, OnMessage Inc., went into attack mode, hammering McCaskill over her husband’s business dealings, her use of a private plane on the campaign trail and her voting record, which they said was too liberal for the red state that Missouri had become.

It was a classic “win the day” theory of campaigning: If you’re explaining you’re losing.

But McCaskill had invested in the ground game with data and field offices and canvassing designed to get out every possible vote, especially in St. Louis and Kansas City, the state’s largest population centers. McCaskill also massively outraised Hawley, bringing in $35 million in donations compared to Hawley’s $10 million.

Hawley’s campaign, run largely by consultants from the Washington area, had less interest in traditional turnout efforts than messaging. Instead, Hawley’s team largely relied on the Missouri Republican Party to get out the vote and on outside groups to fill the fundraising gap.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement in late June came as a gift to Hawley.

He could focus his campaign squarely on the Supreme Court — the one issue that unites Republican factions and that Hawley, a constitutional law expert and former Supreme Court law clerk, was uniquely qualified to exploit.

Hawley knows Kavanaugh personally, which is one reason he didn’t hesitate to be vocal in his support of the judge even when it appeared politically risky.

“He very much is plugged into the national conservative legal world,” Todd said of Hawley. “He had a better sense of Brett Kavanaugh than other candidates did because they literally run in the same circles.”

The controversy over Kavanaugh galvanized Republican voters as Trump and GOP senators portrayed Democrats as character assassins.

Roy Temple, a Democratic consultant in Kansas City, said Kavanaugh turned out to be a wild card for Democrats. At minimum it ended up blunting Democratic momentum.

“The thing you have to be willing to accept is that you can do everything right that’s within your control, and your fate can still be determined by things outside of your control,” said Temple, former chair of the Missouri Democratic Party.

“Sometimes timing is everything in this business.”

KAVANAUGH BUMP

In retrospect, the early signs of the Kavanaugh bump were there. After news broke of sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh on Sept. 13, Hawley and his team noticed people at campaign stops started to perk up at the mention of the nominee’s name.

At the part in Hawley’s stump speech where he brought up the importance of conservative, constitutionalist judges, listeners in towns across Missouri would nod their heads, or even gasp out loud.

It was hard to put your finger on it, Plotkin said, but you could feel it. The energy at Hawley’s campaign events changed after the allegations came out against Kavanaugh. Anger was simmering.

But it wasn’t until the raucous rally with Trump in Springfield, Missouri — days after Senate Republicans agreed to hold a hearing on Ford’s allegations — that GOP voters turned anger into outrage.

Until then, public polls showed Hawley and McCaskill deadlocked. Hawley’s own internal voter surveys had never — not once — shown him up by more than the margin of error over McCaskill.

Then, just two days before chants of Kavanaugh’s name shook the stage in Springfield, McCaskill made it official: She would vote no on Kavanaugh.

Todd, who had been “scared to death” McCaskill might surprise him and vote to confirm Kavanaugh, finally let himself breathe easier.

After that, the Hawley campaign’s voter surveys showed McCaskill’s approval rating among people who approved of Trump drop from 10-15 percent to just 5-7 percent.

McCaskill was never going to win over a majority of Trump voters. But she needed enough to give her a fighting chance in a state Trump had carried by 19 percentage points in 2016.

That’s why she’d campaigned so hard in red parts of the state, such as Greene County, where Springfield is located — places, she often joked, where people didn’t like her much — in the hope she could win over enough of those crucial voters.

Now she’d lost them.

Hawley, for his part, pulled off a feat that could become a model for the GOP as it struggles to maintain its fragile coalition of populists and Chamber of Commerce Republicans, balanced budget voters and tax cut voters, tea partiers and country club Republicans.

He won over those who were uncomfortable with Trump, while hanging onto the president’s acolytes.

“Having support from John Danforth and Steve Bannon simultaneously is quite a feat,” said John Hancock, a former Missouri GOP chair.

“There probably aren’t many if any Republicans in the country who can say that.”

Come Wednesday, there will be plenty of Republicans nationwide hoping Josh Hawley is the first of many.

If that’s true, the outlook for Democrats is bleak.

“People don’t want checks and balances,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat. “They want Trump and want Trump only.”

Jonathan Shorman of The Wichita Eagle contributed to this report
Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise, lwise@mcclatchydc.com
Bryan Lowry: 202-383-6167, @BryanLowry3, blowry@mcclatchydc.com
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