Melinda Henneberger

If getting under McCaskill’s skin was Hawley’s goal, then he won St. Louis debate

McCaskill and Hawley argue over ACA, pre-existing conditions

Josh Hawley says one of Claire McCaskill's supporters crossed the line by bringing Hawley’s family into the discussion. McCaskill wants her supporters to talk about health care and pre-existing conditions.
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Josh Hawley says one of Claire McCaskill's supporters crossed the line by bringing Hawley’s family into the discussion. McCaskill wants her supporters to talk about health care and pre-existing conditions.

ST. LOUIS — Missouri Republican Senate nominee Josh Hawley smiled as he went after Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, and he smiled a lot at Thursday night’s debate.

Much of what he accused her of wasn’t true, but his attacks were so nonstop that she gave up on answering all of them — we’d be there still — and spent much of the evening on the defensive anyway.

By the end, she was shaking a little with anger, and unlike her challenger, McCaskill did not stop to talk to reporters on her way out.

If getting to her was the goal, then Hawley won.

The Missouri attorney general didn’t have to prove he loves a fight, because the whole campaign has been like this, with Hawley answering most questions about what he would do in office with criticism of McCaskill.

While many in his party may have loved his fact-challenged but cheerful pugilism, none of those I interviewed on their way out of the debate did.

“Never in my life did I think I’d ever vote for Claire McCaskill,” said former Republican National Convention delegate Lynn Schmidt, a nurse in St. Charles County. But “Senator McCaskill will be getting my vote,” said Schmidt, who said that’s because she wants some checks and balances on President Donald Trump and found Hawley disingenuous. “It was all canned political speech,’’ she said. “I didn’t feel there was anything true or real in his responses, other than to attack Senator McCaskill.”

Hawley characterized McCaskill’s fairly hawkish views as supporting “weakness and appeasement.” He said he was surprised to hear her say she was fine with insurance premiums going up when she said no such thing. He claimed she wants to take away Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens, when no, she doesn’t.

But the answer that bothered Schmidt most was what Hawley said about McCaskill cutting Medicare to pay for the Affordable Care Act. (Thursday night, fact checkers said that “for years, PolitiFact has been skeptical of numerous previous claims that Obamacare cuts Medicare. Medicare spending continues to rise, but it will climb at a slower pace than without the law. The law reduced future spending for Medicare by targeting reductions in payments to health care providers.)

What bothered Schmidt, though, was when McCaskill tried to explain that, and Hawley answered that, “She can characterize it and go put as much lipstick on it as she wants, but the truth is she voted to cut” Medicare.

“That infuriated me as a woman,” Schmidt said. Two others in the crowd, one of them a man, also mentioned feeling insulted by the “lipstick” comment.

One of them was patient billing adviser Kimberly Clark, who said she kept wishing McCaskill would hit back. When Hawley talked about how in lockstep McCaskill is with her party, the senator did counter that she has voted with Trump 50 percent of the time. (Actually, 44.9 percent of the time.)

But speaking of party line, Clark said, “I was waiting for her to ask Hawley when he was going to stand up to Trump. I wish she had said that if we had participated in Medicaid [expansion], the premiums wouldn’t be so high. I wanted her to land a serious punch.”

Even an 18-year-old student I heard telling Hawley what an honor it was to meet him said he’s undecided and heard nothing in the debate that he hadn’t heard before, though he does find it a plus that the attorney general is “young and personable.”

Age was a barely submerged argument against 65-year-old McCaskill for 38-year-old Hawley, who at one point thanked the senator for her long years of service, then said, “It’s just not working anymore.”

“It’s not that she’s a bad person,” he told the audience. “But she does not represent this state anymore.”

Frustrated as she clearly was, it was McCaskill who offered an apology of sorts to Hawley, saying, “I am so sorry that you interpreted my retweeting” of a blog post criticizing Hawley’s ad about pre-existing conditions as an attack on his 5-year-old son, who Hawley said in the ad was diagnosed with a chronic hip joint condition this year.

Hawley has been widely and rightly criticized for saying he supports making insurance companies cover those with pre-existing conditions, after suing to do away with the Affordable Care Act and its individual mandate, which is what makes it possible for those companies to cover everyone with a pre-existing condition.

“Your son is cute,” McCaskill said, “and I can see that you and your wife love him very much.” Then she did bite back: “I’m not running my campaign on attacking somebody’s family. Somebody is, but it’s not me.” When I asked Hawley after the debate to respond to that, he called it “a cheap attack.”

“I have never attacked her personally, or her family,” he said, and then did, repeating the falsehood that her family has profited from her service.

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