GOP worries about top recruit facing McCaskill

GOP worries about top recruit facing McCaskill
© The Hill photo illustration

Republicans are grumbling about GOP Senate hopeful Josh Hawley's lackluster fundraising and recent controversial comments, prompting unease within the GOP that the Missouri Republican could cost his party a chance at unseating one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats. 

Those concerns have motivated some to go as far as urging GOP Rep. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerOvernight Tech: Zuckerberg breaks silence on Cambridge Analytica controversy | Senate passes sex trafficking bill | EU pushes new tax on tech | YouTube toughens rules on gun videos Misinformation campaign is at the center of opposition to common sense sex trafficking legislation First step in restoring Internet sanity: Passing legislation to stop online sex trafficking MORE, who ruled out a Senate bid last year, to reconsider.

Wagner is unlikely to jump into the race so close to the March filing deadline, and most Republicans are still expressing confidence about Hawley, a top Senate recruit who is running in a state President TrumpDonald John TrumpScarborough mocks 'Deflection Don' over transgender troop ban Pelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump moves to ban most transgender people from serving in military MORE won by more than 20 points in 2016.

Still, the chatter underscores concerns about Hawley, Missouri's attorney general.

“It’s not helpful,” a Republican operative who has been involved in Missouri campaigns said about the problems dogging Hawley’s campaign. “But every campaign has hiccups, curveballs thrown, and this is an opportunity for the attorney general to work a little harder and put [those] concerns to bed.”

The recent apprehension over his candidacy stems from two factors: Hawley’s fundraising and a recent comment blaming sex trafficking on the “sexual revolution.”

Hawley raised just shy of $1 million in the final quarter of 2017, ending the year with $1.2 million in the bank.

While that fourth-quarter haul was one of the highest figures among GOP Senate challengers, he fell miles behind McCaskill, the top fundraiser among vulnerable Democratic incumbents. During that same three-month stretch, McCaskill pulled in $2.9 million, bringing her cash on hand to $9 million.

Hawley’s fundraising haul has raised some eyebrows, even as other Republican challengers face disappointing results of their own.

“We are facing a bad year, so in that sense, it’s not his fault. But he has to go on and carry on a race,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who has worked on races in Missouri.

“Any time a candidate is underperforming in fundraising, it’s always going to be concerning.”

Hawley’s campaign expressed confidence about his fundraising — incumbents regularly out-raise challengers. And the campaign believes McCaskill’s votes against the GOP tax plan will ultimately be a liability for her in the race.

“No amount of money can help a candidate with low approval ratings win an election. That’ll be a challenge to Sen. McCaskill,” said Kyle Plotkin, Hawley’s campaign manager.

“She would like nothing more than to talk about this because it’s a distraction from her liberal votes.”

The concerns also extend to Hawley’s recent gaffe on the campaign trail. It’s a misstep that echoes back to 2012 for Republicans, when McCaskill eked out a reelection after her Republican opponent made his own controversial comments about women’s issues.

In that race, former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) made a remark about “legitimate rape” not causing pregnancy months before the general election. Akin’s poll numbers plummeted, convincing Republicans that his comments cost them the seat — and helped damage the national Republican brand in a presidential election year.

Audio surfaced in January of Hawley making comments at a December event hosted by a religious group, where he blamed sex trafficking crimes on the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

At the event, Hawley said that Missouri faces a human trafficking crisis “because our culture has completely lost its way.” He continued, “The sexual revolution has led to exploitation of women on a scale that we would never have imagined, never have imagined."

McCaskill has seized on those comments to criticize Hawley.

“Let’s get serious: sex trafficking is driven by male demand and the subjugation of women. In the 1960's and '70's, it became okay for Hollywood and the media to treat women as objects for male gratification," Kelli Ford, a spokeswoman for Hawley's campaign, said in a statement.

"As Josh often says, to end sex trafficking, it’s not enough to put the criminals behind bars; you have to change the culture of male exploitation of women.”

Republicans believe that the comments don’t rise to the level of Akin’s 2012 comments, and argue that general election voters won’t remember them. But some strategists say it’s a teaching moment for Hawley, who’s running in one of the country’s most-watched Senate races.

“When you’re running in a high-profile race like this, you have to assume that everything you say, every place you go, the other side’s going to be in the room with a recording device of some sort, especially against someone as wily as Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocrats desperate for a win hail spending bill Koch-backed group launches six-figure ad buy against Heitkamp GOP Senate candidate slams McCaskill over Clinton ties MORE,” said former Missouri GOP Chairman John Hancock. “I reckon that lesson has been taken to heart at this point.”

That unease has translated into vocal criticism of Hawley from top Missouri Republicans, including some who have vocally prodded Wagner to take another look. Politico first reported those overtures.

Former Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-Mo.) criticized Hawley’s campaign operation in an interview with USA Today, saying that “if Hawley doesn’t gear it up and get with it,” he won’t beat McCaskill.

Wagner, a strong fundraiser with experience as a former ambassador and Missouri Republican Party chair, had initially been seen as the GOP’s top recruit to challenge McCaskill. But Wagner announced that she wouldn’t run, so top Republicans courted Hawley.

A bid from Wagner, who has until the March 27 filing deadline to decide, would upend the race. She has about $2 million more in the bank than Hawley does and would instantly turn his cakewalk through the primary into a slog.

Hancock told The Hill that some Missouri Republicans are still trying to persuade Wagner to jump into the race. But Wagner told The Hill on Tuesday that nothing about her 2018 plans has changed.

Hawley is expected to easily win the primary, meaning that he won’t have to spend much before the general election. And while he’ll struggle to match McCaskill’s high-dollar fundraising, he’ll have plenty of help from outside Republican groups that are planning to invest heavily in the race.

Hawley is fresh off his 2016 attorney general bid, where he won more votes than any other candidate on the ballot in Missouri. Hawley has Trump’s endorsement, and the media prominence that comes with his position as state attorney general.

“This is the highest-of-profile races in the country this year and it requires the kind of massive effort to win, both on the ground and through fundraising,” Hancock said. “I believe Josh is capable of doing that.”