McCaskill, Hawley both on the attack in first Missouri U.S. Senate candidate debate

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill (right) speaks alongside Independent candidate Craig O’Dear (center) and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley during a candidate forum at the annual Missouri Press Association convention Friday in Maryland Heights, Mo.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill (right) speaks alongside Independent candidate Craig O’Dear (center) and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley during a candidate forum at the annual Missouri Press Association convention Friday in Maryland Heights, Mo. AP

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Attorney General Josh Hawley pulled no punches in their first face-to-face showdown of the 2018 campaign Friday, with each hammering the other on issues ranging from health care to judicial nominations to tax returns.

At a Friday candidate forum sponsored by the Missouri Press Association, Hawley, a Republican, sought to paint McCaskill as a “Washington liberal” who was out of step with Missouri voters. He vowed to work to enact President Donald Trump’s agenda if he unseats McCaskill in November.

“I have heard what the people of this state said in 2016,” said Hawley, noting Trump’s 19-percentage-point victory in Missouri two years ago.

McCaskill, a Democrat, said her record shows she’s a moderate who is willing to work across the aisle to get things done for Missouri. She said Hawley, by contrast, has demonstrated an unwillingness to stand up to the president or his own party.

“If you want someone who always agrees with his party,” McCaskill said, “then Josh Hawley is your candidate.”

She cited Hawley’s support for Trump’s trade war as an example, saying Hawley is siding with the president instead of Missouri farmers who are being financially hurt by tariffs implemented by the president.

“You have to have independence,” McCaskill said of Hawley. “You have to stand up for your state.”

Hawley said he supports Trump’s approach of using tariffs to force better trade deals, as well as his plan to provide direct financial assistance to farmers impacted by the trade war with China.

“If we’re going to be in a war,” he said, “I want to win it.”

Hawley, whose office joined 20 other attorneys general around the country in a lawsuit seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act, said McCaskill has been lying when she says he is trying to eliminate requirements that insurance companies cover those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Protections for pre-existing conditions don’t have to be tied to the federal health care law, he said, which has only served to drive up insurance premiums for Missourians.

“I will never support taking away health insurance coverage for those with pre-existing conditions,” he said.

The attorney general is engaging in a “Potomac two-step,” McCaskill said, arguing that if Hawley’s lawsuit is successful the mandate to cover pre-existing conditions will also be repealed.

Asked about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, McCaskill said she has not yet made up her mind on whether to support him but expressed concern about some of his opinions on “dark money.”

She said she supported nearly all of former Republican President George W. Bush’s nominees and two-thirds of Trump’s.

“I don’t think that’s a record of an obstructionist,” she said.

Hawley said Kavanaugh is the kind of judge Missourians said they wanted to put on the bench when they voted for Trump. McCaskill, he said, supported every one of “President Obama’s liberal nominees” while opposing the nomination of Justice Neil Gorsuch last year.

She only supports nominees to the Supreme Court, Hawley said, who want to “force the government to help illegal immigrant teen-agers get abortions, throw open our borders and take away our second amendment rights.”

One of Hawley’s main lines of attack Friday during the debate — and again afterward to reporters — was an accusation that McCaskill and her husband Joe Shepard, a developer, pocketed $131 million in federal subsidies.

Hawley and his wife released their 2017 tax returns this week. McCaskill released only her returns, as she and Shepard file separately. Hawley is demanding Shepard’s tax returns be released.

“Release your returns, and if you won’t, will you pledge to give back the $131 million in federal subsidies that you’ve taken and gotten rich off of?” Hawley said.

His characterization of that figure is inaccurate, as are GOP ads that make similar claims. The $131 million figure comes from a Kansas City Star investigation published in July. As McCaskill pointed out during the debate, The Star reported that the money did not go directly to Shepard but to affordable housing projects he’s invested in.

Shepard only pocketed a fraction of that total, although his personal income from his investments in those businesses did grow exponentially during his wife’s two terms in the Senate.

In 2006, the year McCaskill was elected to the Senate, her husband’s personal income from his investments in federal housing projects was between $1,608 and $16,731, The Star found.

By 2017, Shepard was reporting personal earnings of between $365,374 and $1,118,158 from investments in such projects.

The Star’s article also noted that there’s no evidence McCaskill played any role in directing the federal funds to businesses her husband was invested in.

McCaskill said every year Republicans try to demonize her husband’s success by distorting the truth about his business.

“He’s a very successful businessman,” she said. “He’s done exactly what the Republican Party preaches. He started out with nothing and built a fabulously successful business, creating thousands of jobs and great wealth.”

Also on the stage were Green Party candidate Jo Crain and independent candidate Craig O’Dear. Libertarian candidate Japheth Campbell did not attend.

O’Dear said the ugly tone of the Senate campaign is exactly why he’s running as an independent.

“Both of these candidates are claiming independence and claiming the other one is not,” he said. “There is a reason. They know exactly what the problem is. They know exactly what the antidote is. That’s independence.”

Lindsay Wise of The Star’s Washington bureau contributed to this report.