JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Sen. Claire McCaskill coasted to the Democratic nomination Tuesday in Republican-dominated Missouri, but GOP challenger Josh Hawley could prove to be one of her toughest opponents in a lengthy political career that also included stints as a state legislator and auditor.
McCaskill's hopes of winning a third term could depend both on convincing voters she's sufficiently moderate and that Hawley is too closely tied to President Donald Trump, who is supporting him. That's not an easy task considering Trump coasted to a 19-percentage point victory in the onetime bellwether state less than two years ago. Republicans consider McCaskill one of their top targets nationwide this fall.
McCaskill joined supporters at her campaign office in Columbia, Missouri, on Tuesday before the primary results started coming in.
In a speech, McCaskill said she expected a tough fight before the election in November.
“I think everybody in this room knows we’re going to have to work hard in this election,” she explained.
McCaskill focused on key issues, including health care and efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, that she said will be core elements of her campaign.
“I’m not saying the ACA (Affordable Care Act) was perfect. I’ve never said that. I’ve been willing to work with my colleagues across the aisle to try and improve it for years,” she explained. “They weren’t much interested in that. They were more interested in using it as a political weapon. Their repeal and replace plan, when they brought it out they couldn’t even get all the Republicans to vote for it.”
The senator also took special aim at Josh Hawley when discussing dark money and her efforts to publicly disclose campaign donations.
“He embraces dark money. He needs the dark money,” she explained. “I couldn’t feel more strongly that we’ve got to clean it up. Josh Hawley doesn’t feel that way. He thinks this system is just fine.”
With McCaskill now facing a tough battle and needing support from both sides, the senator touted her ability to compromise and work with Republicans.
“We’ve got to come together. We’ve got to hold the middle, come together and find things we can agree on,” she explained. “There was a lot of Trump support in my state. I listened and learned from the people who voted for Donald Trump.”
After McCaskill won the primary, she promptly challenged Hawley to four town-hall style debates.
"It's on," McCaskill tweeted Tuesday in a plea for donations.
Hawley spoke to a room full of supporters in Springfield, Missouri, after he clinched the Republican nomination.
"The outcome of this race is vital to Missouri. It's vital beyond Missouri," he said.
Hawley ended his victory speech by issuing a challenge.
"My challenge to Claire McCaskill is very simple. Let's debate," he said. "I challenge her to a series of one-on-one debates. No moderator, no studios. Let's just do it Lincoln/Douglas style and take our views to the people."
Late Tuesday night, Hawley received a congratulatory tweet from the President.
Congratulations to Josh Hawley on your big Senate Primary win in Missouri. I look forward to working with you toward a big win in November. We need you in Washington!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 8, 2018
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."
Republican Jay Kirschbaum, 60-year-old employee benefits consultant from Chesterfield, on Tuesday said he believed Hawley was the Republican who could finally defeat McCaskill. The last time McCaskill was on the ballot, she faced Republican Rep. Todd Akin, whose campaign derailed after an interview in which he discussed "legitimate rape" in the context of abortion.
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.
“I will stand up to secure our border and build that wall.”
— Dia Wall (@DiaWall) August 8, 2018
"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.
— Tom Dempsey (@KCTomDempsey) August 8, 2018
"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."
Patricia Green, a 70-year-old retired Columbia resident, voted for McCaskill on Tuesday and said she's "about as good as a Democrat can get."
"She doesn't put up a big fight like (Sen. Elizabeth) Warren does, but I think she's good for Missouri," Green said, praising the senator for her "fairness" and "common sense."
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.