Missouri Republicans won’t select a nominee for U.S. Senate until August, but for the past few months many GOP leaders, including President Donald Trump, have been treating the primary results as a foregone conclusion.
And while Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley stops short of calling himself the presumptive nominee, he doesn’t appear too worried about the three other Republican candidates in the race.
“My focus is 100 percent on Sen. (Claire) McCaskill and I think it’s absolutely vital she be replaced,” Hawley said when asked to assess the rest of the GOP field during an interview with The Star.
Throughout the conversation, Hawley repeatedly pivoted back to McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent, when asked to lay out his policy positions or weigh in on intraparty controversies.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Hawley spoke to The Star the same day Congress approved a $1.5 trillion tax cut, which McCaskill opposed. He pointed to the doubling of the standard deduction and expansion of the child tax credit as reasons to support the bill, which also slashes tax rates for businesses.
“It’s a great start. It’s a great start,” he said when asked about the bill’s contents. “The fact that Claire McCaskill won’t vote for this … I think it just shows that she has become a rigidly partisan D.C. creature.”
McCaskill’s campaign pushed back on Hawley’s criticism in a statement and attacked the attorney general for running for a higher office after only one year in his current position.
“After 50 public town halls this year, Missourians know where Claire McCaskill stands on the issues. More importantly, she has listened to their frustrations, hopes, and priorities,” said Meira Bernstein, a state Democratic spokeswoman authorized to speak for McCaskill’s campaign.
“What do Missourians know about Josh Hawley? And when will Hawley begin to listen to Missourians instead of Mitch McConnell’s political operatives? Hawley hasn’t held a single public campaign event and refuses to answer questions about policy,” Bernstein said. “The only thing Missourians know about him is that he lied to them about using one office to immediately run for another.”
Hawley’s candidacy has attracted praise from establishment Republicans — former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth has repeatedly called him a “once in a generation” candidate — and anti-establishment voices, such as Breitbart, the right-wing website run by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
Bannon has waged an intraparty war against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, in recent months in an effort to elevate populist candidates over establishment picks.
Hawley has courted support from both of the party’s wings and spoke with Bannon before officially launching his bid, but he refused to weigh in on Bannon’s battles with McConnell.
“I don’t have any thoughts on the whole soap opera aspect of the personality war, this guy or that guy,” he said.
McConnell, in a Dec. 22 news conference, singled out Hawley as the type of candidate who could keep the Senate in Republican hands.
“We are going to be supporting people who can actually win,” McConnell said. “... We have great candidates out there and you are familiar with them. Josh Hawley (for one). We hope to land a few more in the coming weeks.”
In Missouri, three outsider candidates have attempted to launch personality wars of their own with Hawley ahead of 2018, but he has largely ignored their personal attacks.
Courtland Sykes, a Navy veteran whose campaign has drawn heavily from Trump’s messaging, released a 9 1/2-minute video in October attacking Hawley as an “effete, clubby, stuff-shirted, big-money RINO.”
Austin Petersen, a Kansas City Republican who has auctioned off assault rifles as part of his campaign, mocked Hawley on Twitter that same month, asking him if he had ever fired a gun.
“Ever held one? No time at Yale?” Petersen asked.
Hawley’s focus has remained on McCaskill as though the other GOP candidates do not even exist. And many party leaders have done the same, much to the frustration of the other candidates.
“Josh Hawley is the Republican establishment candidate and if you ask me he’s a tool for the lobbyist organizations,” said Tony Monetti, a retired Air Force pilot from Warrensburg running for the seat.
“I will be the next U.S. senator of Missouri,” he said. “This guy, Josh Hawley, climbed ladders … and the only the ladder I’ve climbed is into the cockpit of a B-2 stealth bomber.”
James Harris, a Jefferson City-based Republican strategist, said party leaders are “laser-focused” on making sure Hawley wins the nomination.
“I know Tony’s a nice gentleman … but yeah, it is a forgone conclusion. I think donors and activists are mindful of not repeating mistakes that we’ve made in the past,” he said, referring to the 2012 nomination of former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin.
Akin, who became engulfed in national controversy when he used the phrase “legitimate rape” weeks after winning the GOP nomination, lost to McCaskill by more than 15 percentage points.
“We would’ve defeated Claire McCaskill if not for the fact that we nominated the weakest candidate,” Harris said.
Harris pointed to Trump’s visit to St. Charles, Mo., in late November as proof of Hawley’s precedence over the other candidates. Sykes and Monetti were in the crowd, but Hawley got to greet Trump as he got off Air Force One.
Trump endorsed Hawley within the first minute of his speech and a few minutes later promised to campaign for him.
Monetti blamed the party establishment for preventing him from meeting Trump in Missouri and said he flew to New York this month to see Trump speak at a breakfast event. He stood up on a table and saluted the president so that he could ask him for advice on the campaign, he said.
“The president starts laughing and says, ‘You’ve got my attention,’ ” he said.
Hawley entered the race after an extremely public courtship by Danforth and other prominent Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence.
Hawley has had relatively few public events since officially launching his campaign in October, but he said that would change in 2018 as the state moves into the election year.
His status as the clear front runner — even before he declared — was cemented after U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Ballwin Republican, announced in July that she would not run for the seat despite months of speculation. Hawley said Wagner’s decision caught him by surprise.
“This is not a race I intended to run. This is not a campaign I intended to be involved in,” he said.
He pointed to McCaskill’s vote against Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch as one of his key reasons for running. He praised Gorsuch’s conservative record.
Hawley met his wife, Erin, a fellow attorney, when they were both working as clerks for Chief Justice John Roberts in 2007.
“We both worked for Justice Roberts and we actually shared an office and that’s how we started dating. That gave me a lot of time to persuade her to go out on a date with me. … I wore her down over time,” he said “She finally said yes.”
The couple married in 2010 after three years of dating. They have two sons, Elijah, 5, and Blaise, 3.
Hawley described how he and his sons would be preparing “reindeer feed” for Christmas Eve — dried corn with glitter sprinkled in “so there’s magic” as part of a new family tradition.
“And we’ll go put that out in the yard, so Santa’s reindeer have something to eat,” he said.
Hawley’s first year as attorney general has been marked by high-profile investigations of pharmaceutical companies and tech giant Google.
“My concern with Google is this: They are quite possibly the most powerful corporation in the world, collect more private personal information … than any corporation in the history of the world. And they are using it and they are selling it,” he said. “And I want to know how they’re using it.”
Asked whether he has concerns that his investigation of Google could deter tech companies from investing in Missouri, Hawley said his job was to hold the powerful accountable.
“I haven’t prejudged the outcome. I want to know the facts,” he said. “If they’re not violating the law, they have nothing to fear.”
Throughout the conversation, Hawley repeatedly railed against corporate consolidation in technology and other industries. He said centralizing the economy in a handful of companies is toxic for the average American.
“Our anti-trust laws are important and in many cases they need to be updated. … That’s particularly true in the technology space,” he said. “We also though need to pursue a deregulation. We need to break that iron triangle between D.C. regulators and big corporations.”
The anti-corporate rhetoric may sound odd for a Republican, but it makes sense when you remember that Hawley has written a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, who gained a reputation as a trust buster during his early 20th century presidency.
Hawley said the country is facing similar challenges because of massive economic change in recent years.
“He was a boyhood hero and I think some of that goes back to his personal story,” Hawley said, noting Roosevelt’s history of childhood illness.
“He was told as a young man that he wouldn’t live to be out of his twenties … and he just refused to accept that,” Hawley said. “He refused to be cowed by people who said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that.’ ”
Lindsay Wise, The Star’s Washington correspondent, contributed to this article.