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Missouri Sen. McCaskill faces a strong GOP challenger and Trump

The Democrat's rival this time around is the state's attorney general — a young, polished, Stanford-and-Yale-educated former clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts.
Image: Claire McCaskill
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., speaks during the Senate Democrats news conference on tax reform in the Capitol on Nov. 28, 2017.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

ARNOLD, Mo. — Sen. Claire McCaskill needs another miracle.

The Missouri Democrat swept into office with a little less than 50 percent of the vote in the 2006 Democratic wave. Six years later, she provided an assist to a Republican rival during the primary and then defeated him in the general election after he said women's bodies have a way to "shut the whole thing down" if pregnancies are the result of "legitimate rape."

Now, in a year in which control of the Senate could turn on a single race, McCaskill is locked in what is sure to be one of the nastiest, most closely contested and expensive elections in the nation. Political prognosticators uniformly rate the race here as a "tossup," but, whether she leads or trails by a few points, McCaskill hasn't topped 45 percent in any of the handful of polls that have been publicly released.

This year she'll face state Attorney General Josh Hawley — a young, polished, Stanford-and-Yale-educated former clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts — in a state that has been trending hard toward Republicans. To beat him, McCaskill will have to combine the qualities just about everyone here agrees she's demonstrated in her long political career: Tremendous skill and uncanny luck. And she'll need both of them in good measure.

A Democrat hasn't won Missouri in a presidential election since Bill Clinton — from neighboring Arkansas — did it in 1996. Donald Trump won the state by 19 percentage points in 2016 and every elected statewide official in the state is a Republican, including Hawley.

He and his allies say McCaskill's hot political hand will be frozen by the cold math of the state's Republican leaning, and her own vote tallies in Washington.

"Democrats like Claire McCaskill have basically abandoned their constituents," said Nick Meyers, the chairman of the Newton County GOP in the southwest corner of the state, citing her votes against Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, seven of Trump's Cabinet nominees, and his tax cut. "I don't think she will be able to make the issue something other than her voting record this time."

The governor scandal

But a big element of Democrats' strategy is to argue that the 38-year-old Hawley, just two years into a four-year term, hasn't handled his current job well and has failed to go after scandal-plagued Republican Gov. Eric Greitens.

In February, a St. Louis grand jury indicted Greitens on charges of felony invasion of privacy, accusing him of photographing a lover nude without her consent. Greitens has admitted to having an affair but denies blackmailing the woman.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley makes his acceptance speech on November 9, 2016, in Springfield, Missouri. (Jr/TNS via Getty Images)John Sleezer/Kansas City Star / TNS via Getty Images

This week, a special committee of the Republican-led Missouri state House is expected to deliver a report on the affair that will be very sexually graphic, according to a person familiar with its contents.

Though Hawley has deferred to the jurisdiction of St. Louis prosecutor Kim Gardner on matters involving the affair, Democrats want to connect him to all of Greitens' scandals, as the Senate Majority PAC did in a recent 30-second ad calling him "part of the problem in Jefferson City."

Hawley has been widely criticized for his handling of an investigation into Greitens' office use of Confide, an app that destroys messages after they're read, that found no wrongdoing, and critics argue that the attorney general was slow to probe whether the governor improperly used donor information from a veterans charity he founded to aid his gubernatorial campaign.

Hawley "is struggling to do the job he was just elected to and trying to protect a governor mired in scandal," said McCaskill campaign spokeswoman Meira Bernstein. McCaskill declined an interview request for this story.

Some Republican donors and political leaders also are worried that Hawley isn't working hard enough in the Senate race, particularly because McCaskill is known for hitting the hustings non-stop.

He had just $1.2 million in the bank at the end of the year, compared to $9.1 million for McCaskill, who has a fundraiser featuring former President Barack Obama scheduled in Beverly Hills next month. McCaskill announced Monday that she hauled in another $3.9 million in the first quarter of 2018, while Hawley's numbers for January, February and March haven't yet been made public.

On top of that, Hawley's been skipping county parties' Lincoln Day dinners to avoid being on the same stage with Greitens — he doesn't think it's appropriate when he's investigating the governor, but other Republicans say it's a mistake to miss out on opportunities to energize his base before the election.

"His heart is not into the campaign the way it was two years ago," lamented one fellow Republican elected official who asked to remain anonymous because he supports Hawley.

Missouri McCaskill, Washington McCaskill

For the 64-year-old McCaskill to win, political experts here say, she'll have to run up the score with Democratic base voters in two vote-rich Democratic areas — St. Louis and Kansas City — swing working-class whites in their suburbs back into the Democratic column, and hold down Hawley's margins in the rest of the state.

That's a tall order for two reasons: Republicans in Missouri's suburbs didn't abandon Trump the way their counterparts did in some other areas of the country in 2016. And McCaskill has been hearing rumblings from the state's African-American leaders that she hasn't done enough for the black community.

"I'm going to vote for Claire, but Claire is going to have to bring her ass to St. Louis," state Rep. Bruce Franks, an African-American lawmaker who gained attention as an activist during the Ferguson police shooting protests, said at a February town hall.

Even in a year in which anti-Trump sentiment is expected to drive Democratic voters to the polls in droves, McCaskill can ill-afford to lose any available votes in a state where her party has been hemorrhaging them for years. In 2008, Obama lost Missouri by less than two-tenths of a percentage point while racking up more than 1.4 million votes. Four years later, he got about 220,000 fewer votes. And Hillary Clinton, running in 2016, tallied about 371,000 fewer votes than Obama had in 2008.

Other than McCaskill in 2006, the last Democrat to win a midterm Senate election in Missouri was Tom Eagleton in 1974.

McCaskill's other potential problem centers around her voting record, particularly her propensity to toe the Democratic line and vote against top Trump priorities.

Overall, the website FiveThirtyEight reports, McCaskill has voted with Trump 46.3 percent of the time. That ranks her sixth-highest among Senate Democrats.

But her score is far below the 83.8 percent of the time the website says McCaskill would be expected to back his position given his margin of victory in her state. Three other Democratic senators in tough races — Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — register at more than 55 percent support for Trump.

McCaskill has always campaigned as a politician who has been independent from her party and has sought bipartisan solutions. An aide noted that she has sponsored, cosponsored or worked behind the scenes on more than 20 bills that Trump has signed into law. And she's taken the lead on some high-profile legislative efforts, including a recent anti-sex-trafficking law she worked on with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

But Hawley said McCaskill's reports of cross-aisle work in the Senate don't match up to reality.

"There are unfortunately two different Claire McCaskills," Hawley said in an interview with NBC News. "The real Claire McCaskill is the D.C. Claire McCaskill."

The Trump Effect

The president remains popular in Missouri. A recent Morning Consult poll showed that 50 percent of registered voters in the state approve of him, while 45 percent don't.

Trump endorsed Hawley last year, and during a speech to Hawley donors in St. Louis last month, Trump called Hawley "a wonderful guy...who knows what it's all about," according to an audio recording of the president's remarks obtained by NBC News.

Trump got involved in the race early, taunting McCaskill in one Tweet delivered among an unrelated series about hurricane relief last August.

The combination of McCaskill's efforts to demonstrate when she's agreed with him and Hawley's unwillingness to distance himself from the president suggest both sides understand the power of Trump's appeal here.

For example, in an interview, Hawley declined to say whether he supports Trump's new tariffs, which threaten to directly or indirectly hurt businesses like Anheuser-Busch and Boeing in St. Louis and the state's many farmers.

"One of my top concerns is to ensure there is no retaliation against our agricultural community — including Missouri farmers — and that we are not punishing trade partners who do follow the rules in the process," Hawley said. "Trade is good for Missouri workers and farmers when our trade partners follow the same rules we do."

Hawley also declined to offer support for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a favorite target of Trump's wrath, saying that the decision on whether the nation's top law enforcement officer should keep his job is "up to the president."

Hawley has said that Trump is welcome to visit the state any time, and Republicans here hope that the president will rally voters in the southern part of the state in the campaign's home stretch.

"She's always the underdog," state Rep. Michael Butler, a Democrat who represents a St. Louis district, said of McCaskill. "But she thrives as the underdog."