Missouri GOP Aims to Avoid Akin Repeat, Unseat McCaskill
As Republicans lay the groundwork for next year’s midterms, there might be no Senate contest with as much emotional baggage for the party as Missouri’s.
In 2012, Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill was a key Republican target — until a messy, crowded GOP primary yielded a disastrous opponent in then-Rep. Todd Akin, whose response to a question about abortion sparked an uproar and derailed his campaign.
Since then, Republicans have worked to prevent a repeat “Akin moment” in other races across the country, with sharper focus on recruiting sterling candidates. But, in McCaskill’s first re-election race since the Akin fiasco, Republicans are uniquely determined to prevent history from repeating itself — and are now actively working to cull the primary field beforehand.
“State and national Republicans are laser-focused on making sure this race does not slip through their fingers again,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist who was the NRSC communications director during that election cycle.
The effort has party leaders pitching in, including Vice President Mike Pence. Pence has only sparingly been recruiting candidates to run for Senate, but he placed a call earlier this month to Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley “encouraging him to take a look at” the race, a source familiar with the call confirmed. (Pence has also waded into recruitment efforts for the upcoming Senate race in his home state of Indiana.)
Hawley (pictured), who won election to statewide office last year, is widely viewed as a promising upstart in the Republican Party and has emerged as the likeliest challenger to McCaskill. He has already cultivated an impressive network: In January, Hawley participated in a panel discussion at a donor confab hosted by the Koch political network. Club for Growth President David McIntosh, who is close to Pence, has been promoting Hawley and encouraging him to run, according to a Missouri Republican strategist; and in April, former Sen. John Danforth was a signatory to an open letter urging the attorney general to challenge McCaskill.
The field seemed to be developing in Hawley’s favor after Rep. Ann Wagner announced earlier this month she would not run for Senate. But the race is not settled just yet. Multiple Missouri Republican sources expressed doubts that Hawley will jump into the race. And using a statewide post as a launching pad to a plummier office is exactly the sort of thing Hawley has suggested he wouldn’t do.
“Jefferson City is full of career politicians just climbing the ladder, using one office to get another,” Hawley said in an ad during his AG campaign, contrasting blatant careerism with his own style.
As Hawley remains undecided, another statewide elected official is also in the mix: Missouri Treasurer Eric Schmitt, who, like Hawley, took office this year. Schmitt has recently ratcheted up his outreach to Republican powerbrokers, traveling to Washington, D.C., last week for meetings with Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and other top NRSC officials. The meetings were confirmed by multiple sources with direct knowledge of them.
Hawley and Schmitt are expected to decide whether to run in the next few weeks. But Republicans do not anticipate they would choose to face off in a primary — opening the door for another Todd Akin to walk through. For Missouri Republicans, those wounds are still fresh.
“It’s highly unlikely they would challenge one another,” said one state GOP strategist familiar with the would-be candidates’ thinking. “I think that Missouri Republicans are in a great position here, because we have two young, attractive, statewide-winning candidates, and one of them will run.”