ST. LOUIS (AP) — Republican Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley will have to walk a tightrope between warring factions of the Republican party if he wants to unite the GOP and oust Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill from office in 2018.
Hawley, a 37-year-old in his first year of elected office, released a video Tuesday morning officially announcing his candidacy, although he signaled his intent months ago. McCaskill is among 10 Senate Democrats running in states won by Trump and is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents.
Hawley's earliest supporters include Missouri's moderate former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, 81, a scion of the state Republican establishment and a strong critic of Trump.
So it raised eyebrows when The Kansas City Star reported last week that Hawley also spoke with Trump's former White House strategist Steve Bannon, a nationalist firebrand who once declared that his news site, Breitbart, was "the platform for the alt-right."
Bannon has vowed to destroy Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by running insurgent candidates in Senate races across the country. Hawley doesn't appear to neatly fit the insurgent resume.
But so far, Missouri Republicans appear more worried about avoiding the mistakes of the past than their internal battles, in order to oust McCaskill.
Danforth told The Associated Press that Hawley's communication with Bannon is "important for him to get elected."
Ryan Johnson, the former president of the conservative advocacy group Missouri Alliance for Freedom, said Hawley has seems to have united the party.
"When you have everybody from former Sen. John Danforth to conservative activist and strategist Steve Bannon supporting the man, he's managed to pull off what many others have not," he said.
McCaskill, 64, is in her second term in the Senate, but Missouri voters have increasingly favored Republicans in recent years. Just one Jefferson City statewide officeholder, Auditor Nicole Galloway, is a Democrat, and she was appointed to her seat.
McCaskill has admitted to meddling in the 2012 GOP primary and during her re-election bid succeeded in getting the challenger she considered the weakest, former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin. After he won the Republican primary, Akin told a TV interviewer that women's bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape," a comment that drew a national backlash. Akin lost the election badly.
"They want desperately to avoid that sort of failure again, and Hawley certainly promises to be much more articulate and much less likely to step on land mines the way that Akin did," University of Missouri political scientist Peverill Squire said. "Every faction of the Republican Party looks at Hawley and sees what they want to see."
Hawley's best known public stance was his work to prepare a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the private company Hobby Lobby could cite religious objections to opt out of contraceptive coverage under President Barack Obama's health care law. Conservatives praised the ruling as a huge victory for religious rights, while progressives said it would allow private companies to force their employees to follow the religious beliefs of the owners. But Hawley was among many lawyers who worked on the case.
Hawley also was an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and campaigned for limited government and religious liberties. Since his January inauguration to attorney general, he has focused on issues including human trafficking and opioid misuse.
As a state officeholder and relatively new candidate for U.S. Senate, he hasn't yet taken many public stances on national issues. Squire said he's still "malleable" and has an opportunity to brand himself as he tries to shore up the Republican base before the 2018 primary.
Hawley spokesman Scott Paradise said voters across the political spectrum are behind ousting McCaskill.
"Attorney General Hawley appreciates the support he gets from Republicans of all stripes - and Democrats and Independents too," he said.
This story has been corrected to show that the Missouri Democratic Party, not McCaskill's campaign, ran a digital ad accusing Hawley of using the attorney general's office as a stepping stone. It has also been corrected to show that McCaskill is in her second term, not her third.