Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley huddled with influential conservative policymakers and donors at a seminar hosted by the billionaire Koch brothers’ advocacy group at a posh New York City hotel on Friday, less than a week after Hawley officially launched his U.S. Senate bid.
It was the second time this year that Hawley has attended one of the Kochs’ exclusive retreats. Hawley spoke in January at a Koch-sponsored seminar at a swanky resort near Palm Springs, California. At the time, a spokesman for Hawley said it was a “personal trip.”
Koch Industries, owned by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, contributed $20,000 to Hawley’s campaign for attorney general last year.
Their invitation-only gatherings historically are a chance for the conservative fundraising elite to size up candidates they can support. It’s estimated the Kochs’ network will spend at least $300 million to promote its agenda in the 2018 election cycle.
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Hawley is seeking to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., regarded as one of the nation’s most vulnerable Senate Democrats, and has been courting conservative support.
Shortly before announcing his Senate bid Tuesday, Hawley spoke on the phone with former White House strategist Steve Bannon, the Breitbart executive promoting Republican candidates willing to challenge the GOP establishment.
The New York seminar Friday at the St. Regis Hotel focused heavily on what the Kochs’ conservative advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, considers its top priority: An overhaul of the nation’s tax system.
Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, warned that Republicans could lose big in 2018 if they don’t get major tax cuts through Congress.
Hawley participated in a panel discussion on “advancing policy issues” at the state level with Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, R-Okla. and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, R-Miss. Both are likely future gubernatorial candidates. Their remarks were closed to the press, but reporters were allowed to attend other presentations.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, said the group respects Hawley and invited him to Friday’s seminar as a guest in his official capacity as attorney general. Hawley’s spokesman said travel expenses for the trip were covered by his newly launched Senate campaign.
“He’s a bright young leader,” said Phillips, who noted that the Koch network is already active in Missouri and making sure that McCaskill “hears the message” on taxes.
He accused McCaskill of engaging in “class warfare” when she criticizes Republican efforts to rewrite the tax code.
“It’s disappointing to not even give tax reform a chance. She’s already attacking it,” Phillips said.
The Missouri Democratic Party castigated Hawley on Friday for leaving the state to jet off to the Koch event, which about 100 right-leaning donors and policymakers attended.
“It is a slap in the face to the people of Missouri that Josh Hawley’s first act as a U.S. Senate candidate is to fly to New York City to answer questions from the billionaire Koch Brothers and the GOP establishment, when he will not answer questions from Missourians,” said Meira Bernstein, a spokeswoman for the party, in a statement.
A spokesman for Hawley, Scott Paradise, shot back that the only reason McCaskill won another term in 2012 was because she splintered the Republicans and meddled in the GOP primary.
McCaskill took credit in her 2015 memoir Plenty Ladylike for helping then-Rep. Todd Akin win the Republican primary in Missouri so that she would face a candidate she was likely to beat.
“Josh Hawley will not let her get away with that dirty trick again,” Paradise said in an email. “He is working hard to unite conservatives in Missouri and nationwide so that a conservative state like Missouri doesn’t have a liberal senator.”
Hawley, 37, is a former professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. He ran as a political novice last year and won his first term as attorney general by a 17-point margin.
He officially announced on Tuesday that he would run for Senate after forming a federal fundraising committee in August. Prominent Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth and Pence, had urged Hawley for months to jump into the race to topple McCaskill.
The Washington Post on Friday listed the Missouri Senate race as the number one most competitive in the nation. The state has shifted from a political bellwether to a red-leaning state in recent years. President Donald Trump trounced Democrat Hillary Clinton there last year by a 19 point margin.
Michael Palmer, the director of i360, the Koch brothers’ campaign data firm, told Friday’s seminar that Missouri is among the network’s top targets for 2018, along with Indiana and Wisconsin.
“Missouri is going to be a tremendous challenge for Claire McCaskill to hold,” Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told the seminar.
She noted that Democrats in competitive seats are running in states that Trump carried and that they had won their seats “in really good Democratic years.”
McCaskill first won her Senate seat in 2006 in a Democratic wave year, and then triumphed in 2012 with President Barack Obama on the ballot — and Akin as her opponent.
Akin, a former congressman from St. Louis, lost to McCaskill after he said victims of “legitimate rape” could avoid pregnancy because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Until he made that remark, McCaskill trailed him in the polls. She ended up winning easily.
“She’s had a lot of lucky breaks,” Cook said. “Something like the cat with nine lives. And this is a very, very, very difficult race for Democrats to hold this one.”