Vice President Mike Pence reached out to Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley about the possibility of challenging U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2018, Hawley’s spokesman confirmed Tuesday.
Hawley has been a top pick to run against McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent, by several prominent Missouri Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth. Hawley has been coy about his plans, but his spokesman confirmed that he received a phone call from Pence last weekend.
“Josh spoke to Vice President Pence this weekend and has been getting a great deal of encouragement to run. He is giving the race serious consideration,” Hawley’s spokesman, Scott Paradise, said in an email. “Josh has also received calls from others (candidates) interested in running and he is letting them know of his decision to consider the race.”
Pence’s office did not immediately comment on the phone call Tuesday. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s main national campaign committee for Senate races, also did not comment on Pence’s interest in the Missouri race.
Danforth and Sam Fox, a former U.S. ambassador to Belgium from St. Louis, have led a public campaign to recruit Hawley and dissuade GOP donors from backing other candidates while the first-term attorney general weighs his decision. Danforth lauded Hawley as a “once-in-a-generation” candidate earlier this month.
The senior member of Missouri’s congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, sidestepped the Pence phone call in a hall of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Blunt had been horseback riding with the vice president just a few days before.
“I have no public opinions on that,” said Blunt, a member of Republican leadership in the Senate.
McCaskill’s campaign criticized Hawley for taking input from Pence on whether he should run.
“For a guy who promised Missourians he wasn’t just a ladder-climbing politician, he sure is taking a lot of advice from Washington, DC politicians on how to quickly climb that ladder,” said John LaBombard, McCaskill’s spokesman, in a text message.
McCaskill has more than $5 million in her campaign coffers after raising a record $3.1 million in the last three months.
The Missouri Democratic Party echoed the “ladder-climbing” talking point in a statement, which blasted Hawley for weighing a run for “higher office after just six months into a job because that’s what billionaires and establishment politicians told him to do.”
Two other candidates have already entered the race on the Republican side, Tony Monetti, a retired Air Force pilot from Warrensburg, and Austin Petersen, a Kansas City resident who made an unsuccessful bid for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination last year.
Several other prominent Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler and Missouri Treasurer Eric Schmitt, have also been floated as possible candidates after U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, who had been the presumed frontrunner, announced last week she would not seek the Senate seat.
“Republicans need to unite behind a candidate. I don’t think they can afford a primary,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes U.S. Senate and governors races.
Brian Walsh, a former Republican strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a partner at the bipartisan public affairs firm Rokk Solutions in Washington, D.C., said that Republicans “let this seat slip through their fingertips five years ago” and that finding the best candidate will be crucial to avoid a repeat of that in 2018.
He called 15 months “a lifetime in politics” and said “there’s not necessarily a rush to get right in” unless you think your announcement will clear the field.
“But look, there’s no question that Senate races each cycle get more and more expensive, and you have to have the resources to compete, and I think anyone looking seriously at a statewide race has to make sure they have the ability to do that,” Walsh said.
James Harris, a GOP strategist based in Jefferson City, called Hawley a “rock star” and said that he would be “probably the best Senate recruit nationally should he choose to run.”
He said the effort by Pence and other GOP stalwarts to court him will help Hawley’s appeal as a candidate, noting that President Donald Trump won the state by 19 points in November. He defended Hawley’s reluctance to give a clear answer about whether he intends to run as a sign that he is taking the race seriously.
“I would argue that one should not jump lightly into what will probably be the most competitive Senate race in the country,” Harris said. “So I would argue probably a legitimate, serious person would not just jump in. They would want to really think about it.”