Melinda Henneberger

The issue that Blunt says will decide Hawley-McCaskill race has barely been mentioned

Roy Blunt speaks to voters in Harrisonville

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri speaks to voters in Harrisonville on Nov. 5. He says the nation's strong economy and decreases in regulation over the past two years would not have happened if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2016.
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U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri speaks to voters in Harrisonville on Nov. 5. He says the nation's strong economy and decreases in regulation over the past two years would not have happened if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2016.

HARRISONVILLE, MISSOURI — So what issue will decide the essentially tied U.S. Senate race in Missouri between the Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill, and her Republican challenger, Josh Hawley? If you said the economy, that makes two of you, and the other guy who thinks that is Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.

Or so he said when I asked him during a quick interview at the Cass County GOP headquarters, where he stopped to greet local party officials and other all-in Republicans on the eve of Election Day. Jobs and tax cuts have unfortunately not been a major focus in the race, in part because President Donald Trump himself has preferred to talk about other, more stimulating matters, such as the supposed “invasion of our country” by an already fragmented and fatigued group of migrants who are still 650 miles from our border after a three-week trek that has brought them a little more than 600 miles.

The estimated size of the group has already been halved, from 7,000 to 3,500, and if earlier “caravans” of Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty are any guide, only a fraction of even those asylum seekers will ever make it here. Yet there’s no disputing, as the president has said, that “it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy” as it is to demonize a bunch of terrified people walking in this direction with their children. At one point, Trump said that any migrant so much as caught throwing a rock should be considered no different than someone armed with a rifle, and that was very exciting.

OK, Blunt allowed, maybe “the economy hasn’t been emphasized as much as it should be.” Then he named two other issues that partisans in the room really had mentioned as major motivators — the caravan and sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“My side got as energized about the election during the Kavanaugh process as their side had been since the last election,” Blunt said. With Kavanaugh already on the bench, I’m not sure that’s still a powerful factor for the average Republican.

But an older man at the gathering did put both hands on Blunt’s shoulders, and leaning in nose-to-nose, asked him, “Did that lady get up there and lie?” He didn’t have to name Christine Blasey Ford, who said that Kavanaugh had assaulted her at a party when they were both in high school.

“What is true is that none of it could be verified,” Blunt told the man. “I think what she said happened, except that Justice Kavanaugh wasn’t there.”

“What happened to Justice Kavanaugh matters,” Blunt told me, “and borders matter. I’ve been pleased to hear the president say in recent days that he’s pro-immigration, but pro-legal immigration.”

Asked about how that lines up with a Trump-sponsored ad about the caravan that was so widely seen as racist that even Fox News and Fox Business stopped showing it, along with NBC and Facebook, and CNN declined to air it in the first place, Blunt said, “I haven’t seen it, though it surprises me that Fox would take it off the air.”

The ad compares migrants in the caravan to a Mexican man found guilty of killing two California sheriff’s deputies four years ago. “Dangerous illegal criminals like cop-killer Luis Bracamontes don’t care about our laws,” it said.

“Democrats let him into our country,” the ad warns, and “Democrats let him stay.” Trump has said without any evidence that Democrats are behind the exodus from Honduras, as if that explanation made more sense than that anyone interested in keeping his or her children alive would try to escape the country’s some 40,000 active gang members in a place unluckily located between South America, where cocaine is produced, and the United States, where it’s consumed.

Even the part about Democrats being solely responsible for Bracamontes staying in the U.S. is false: An Immigrations and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman told CNN in 2014 that Bracamontes had been arrested and deported twice before, under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Hawley, who has said that Trump is “right that we’ve got to meet this [issue of the caravan] with a show of strength,” has made sure that that issue is on the ballot in Missouri on Tuesday, along with just how much fear-peddling and outright perfidy we’re willing to tolerate.