By SUMMER BALLENTINE , Associated Press
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s hopes of winning a third term in Republican-dominated Missouri could depend both on convincing voters she’s sufficiently moderate and how voters feel about President Donald Trump, who is backing her presumptive Republican challenger.
It’s not an easy task considering Trump coasted to a 19-percentage point victory in the onetime bellwether state less than two years ago, which is why Republicans consider McCaskill one of their top targets nationwide this fall.
The favored Republican challenger is Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, who could be one of the toughest opponents McCaskill has faced in a long political career that also included stints as a state legislator and auditor. McCaskill wasn’t expected to be seriously tested in the Democratic primary.
Retaining seats like McCaskill’s is critical for Democrats if they are to have any chance of gaining control of the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-49 advantage and have Vice President Mike Pence to break any ties.
“Democrats have to ‘run the table,'” said Steven Puro, a retired political scientist at Saint Louis University. “But the Republicans have a few key states where they think they can build a firewall, and Missouri is one of them.”
Republicans now control every statewide elected office in Jefferson City except the auditor’s office and have supermajority control of the state House and Senate.
Hawley is throwing his support behind Trump, who has heaped praise on the candidate and attended multiple fundraisers for him. On Monday, he tweeted that Trump “asked me to take back this Senate seat for Missourians,” and Hawley pledged that he would.
“Hawley has clearly hitched his train to the president,” University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist David Kimball said. “That’s a calculated gamble that overall, the president will help.”
In Trump country, McCaskill often cites the more than 50 town halls she held since 2017 in rural areas of the state where support for the president is strong. She’s campaigning on issues that could play to both Republicans and Democrats, including health care and high drug costs. She has clashed with the president on trade and some other issues, but she also touts areas of agreement with the administration and other Republicans.
“Always a good day when we pass the Defense Authorization by wide bipartisan majorities,” she tweeted after a $716 billion defense policy bill passed the Senate this month. “That’s how this place is supposed to work. Compromise means getting things done instead of just trying to score political points.”
Hawley has attempted to paint McCaskill as a liberal obstructionist, citing her vote against Justice Neil Gorsuch as an example, as well as an out-of-touch elitist. Ads by his campaign and outside groups slammed her for flying on a private plane to some stops on a recent tour of the state in her RV.
Democratic criticism of Hawley has centered on him joining a lawsuit as attorney general against President Barack Obama’s health care law. He has drawn criticism for campaigning against climbing political ladders, then entering the Senate race shortly after taking office as attorney general.
He’s also faced pushback over allegations of corruption related to a top donor to his attorney general campaign. The Democratic Senate Majority PAC has run multiple ads accusing him of refusing to investigate, although the attorney general’s office does not have initial jurisdiction in such cases.
Democrats also have attempted to tie Hawley to the state’s Republican former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned amid political and personal scandal as lawmakers considered impeaching him. Although Hawley publicly called for Greitens to step down, Democrats say he took too long to act and didn’t do enough to investigate.