JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Republican candidate Josh Hawley used a Thursday debate to try to paint Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill as too liberal for the increasingly red state of Missouri, while McCaskill continued to hammer her challenger over his positions on health care.
The candidates' messaging during the St. Louis debate hosted by St. Louis Public Radio, Nine Network and KSDK Channel 5 reflects broader themes in their campaigns in the final weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
Hawley so far has tied himself to President Donald Trump, who won Missouri by nearly 19 percentage points in 2016 and has returned to the state multiple times to drive up support for Hawley, the state's attorney general.
Hawley said McCaskill has not accepted "what the people said in 2016" and no longer reflects the views of voters on policies including the recent federal tax cut, which she voted against, and a wall on the southern border, which she says is unnecessary.
"She has simply not voted with this state anymore," Hawley said. "She's become a party-line liberal."
McCaskill has been laser-focused on health care, particularly on saying that Hawley's actions could mean the loss of insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
The stakes are high, and Republicans' slim 51-49 control of the U.S. Senate is on the line.
Republicans view McCaskill's seat as a top opportunity to flip a U.S. Senate seat. She's among 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won.
McCaskill used the debate to slam Hawley as unwilling to split from Trump and sought to cast herself as independent, offering both compliments and criticism of the president.
On tariffs, she praised the latest trade deal with Canada and Mexico as having "great promise for continuity and stability for farmers in Missouri."
"That's terrific," she said. "I'm not afraid to compliment the president, but what's going on with this trade war with China hurts, and it's going to hurt for a long time for Missouri ag," citing in particular the fall in prices of soybeans.
McCaskill also repeated criticism of Hawley's role as one of 20-state attorneys general who joined a lawsuit that seeks to overturn former President Barack Obama's health care law, including popular insurance protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions.
He's been on the defensive on the issue and aired an ad emphasizing his support for protections for pre-existing conditions. He supports repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, and says Congress should force insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions.
But on Thursday he took a more aggressive stance, reviving longstanding Republican complaints that the Affordable Care Act raised premiums and limited options.
"We can protect people and we must with pre-existing conditions," Hawley said. "But they shouldn't be forced to pay the prices they are paying now. They shouldn't have the narrowing of networks that we are seeing all over this state because of Obamacare."
When pressed for details on a possible replacement, Hawley suggested reinsurance, federal exchanges and direct subsidies.
McCaskill countered that his plans are unworkable in practice.
"You don't go to court and get rid of important protections when there is no backup, when people will be in a freefall," McCaskill said. "You work with people and try to fix it and change it."
Both candidates offered fewer details when asked about possible federal legislation that could help the relationship between communities and police. The issue is particularly salient in Missouri, which received national attention after sometimes violent protests in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in response to the fatal police shooting of unarmed, black 18-year-old Michael Brown.
McCaskill cited her work on community policing as a former county prosecutor, and proposed more resources for community policing.
Hawley pitched promoting dialogue and quickly added that police "are doing a great job."