GOP Golden Boy Mails It In
By Alex Isenstadt |
As GOP Rep. Ann Wagner prepared to introduce candidates in a Republican Senate debate here Friday, she took a pointed jab at one contender who didn’t make it — front-runner Josh Hawley.
“I try not to tell candidates how to run their races. I don’t know where some of the other candidates are,” she told POLITICO before taking the stage in a high school auditorium, referring specifically to Hawley. “Perhaps they have conflicts. But you gotta show up to win. And I’m going to tell that to the crowd tonight.”
Moments later, Wagner followed through, declaring to the raucous applause of Republican voters on hand that “showing up matters.”
The scene encapsulated widespread concerns about Hawley. Star-struck Senate Republican leaders anointed the 38-year-old, Stanford- and Yale- educated state attorney general as their top recruit of 2018 — a squeaky-clean figure they saw as the future of the party and an ideal opponent to take on the endangered Democratic incumbent, Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Yet as the campaign season kicks into high gear, many Republicans worry that Hawley — who openly admits he had no intention of running for Senate until he was pressured into it — is squandering his shot.
In interviews with more than two dozen senior Republican strategists, donors, lawmakers and local officials, Hawley was depicted as a lackadaisical candidate who has posted sluggish fundraising numbers, turned down interviews with conservative radio show hosts, and spurned traditional GOP events considered a rite of passage for a potential U.S. senator.
"I am personally baffled and disappointed that the guy I've had on my show numerous times over the last four years and have been supportive of has been MIA," Mark Reardon, a veteran conservative radio show host in St. Louis whose program Hawley has shunned in recent months, said in an interview. "I'm pissed. I'm frustrated."
At a time when Republicans across the country are struggling to excite their base, Hawley’s absenteeism has infuriated the conservative activists and organizers whose support he badly needs. And it has rankled top Republicans in Washington who are concerned that he’s needlessly providing an opening to McCaskill, a deeply vulnerable incumbent who skated to reelection against a weak Republican opponent in 2012 — and who, they fret, may be lucking out again.
Their concerns have been amplified by a series of self-defeating errors that have furthered the caricature of a candidate who just isn’t into campaigning hard. Early on a Friday afternoon last September, Hawley was photographed buying wine. On a Wednesday last November, Hawley posted an Instagram video of himself lifting weights. Then, earlier this year, a fellow gym-goer snapped a series of pictures of Hawley pumping iron during the middle of the workday.
Hawley’s snubs have antagonized potential allies. Wagner, a former Missouri GOP chair and George W. Bush-era U.S. ambassador who has deep ties to the state’s political and donor class, took herself out of Senate contention more than 10 months ago. Yet Hawley still hasn’t asked her for her support or taken steps to smooth things over with the suburban St. Louis congresswoman, who many believe withdrew after recognizing that Hawley was the party’s first choice. In doing so, he’s left himself without an ally who could have otherwise worked the state aggressively on his behalf.
Wagner has received two voicemails from Hawley since July, and they’ve never actually spoken, according to two people with knowledge of the interactions. Several months after Wagner bowed out, Hawley left a message saying he just wanted to check in but that she didn’t need to call him back. In the second voicemail, which came this spring, the attorney general asked the congresswoman to attend a fundraiser President Donald Trump was hosting for him in the state. Wagner ended up not going.
On Monday afternoon, after POLITICO reached out to Hawley’s campaign for comment, a Hawley aide contacted the congresswoman’s office asking to arrange a sit-down. Hawley’s aides also said they have been in touch with Wagner’s team for some time in hopes of setting up a meeting.
On Friday, Reardon used his afternoon drive-time show to poke Hawley, asking when the candidate would start campaigning “more publicly.” And earlier this month, Reardon, while in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, spoke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about Missouri politics and the Senate race. The talk-show host warned McConnell that McCaskill is a tenacious campaigner and not to be taken lightly.
"I like the guy; I think he'd be a good U.S. senator,” Reardon said of Hawley. “But this worries me. I don't like the pattern."
Organizers of the Christian County Lincoln Day Dinner didn’t have any better luck. Ken Hurley, the county GOP secretary, said Hawley was invited to the late April event but declined to attend. Hawley didn’t send over a campaign banner or promote himself at the dinner.
“I’m very disappointed. Decisions have consequences, and him deciding not to attend the Christian County Lincoln Day Dinner tells me he doesn’t care about Christian County,” said Hurley, who donated to Hawley’s 2016 attorney general bid.
He added: “A lot of Republicans were Josh Hawley supporters months ago. I have heard from many people and they are not supporting him. They feel he is blowing them off and that he’s not interested in southwest Missouri.”
Hawley’s long-shot GOP primary challengers have begun using his silence against him. Austin Petersen, who ran for president in 2016 as a Libertarian, has launched a digital advertisement in which he holds a live chicken while challenging Hawley to a debate.
“What’s the matter Josh, you chicken?” Petersen asks as the animal squawks.
With the election still nearly six months away, there is still time for Hawley to right his campaign — some Republicans said he’s already showing signs of improvement after a rocky start. His supporters say the attributes that drew GOP leaders to him at the outset will ultimately put him over the top.
During an interview at his campaign headquarters in Columbia on Thursday, Hawley disputed much of the sniping directed at him. He pointed out that he’s held 10 campaign events in the past six weeks, while juggling his official responsibilities as attorney general. He said he fully understood that defeating McCaskill, whom he described as a practitioner of dirty politics, would not come easy.
At one point, he addressed his critics directly.
“I would just say that, No. 1, there’s always room for improvement. No. 2, we need all the help we can get,” he said. “So I would say that, to those folks that — and there are so many that are around the state that care so deeply about this race and about beating Claire McCaskill — let’s stand together, work together, and I will take advice from any quarter. I’m not afraid of criticism, and we’re going to focus laser-like on beating Claire.”
Hawley spent several minutes at the outset of the interview describing how he never expected to be running against McCaskill in the first place. In early 2017, he said he started receiving overtures from people wanting him to run, but he wasn’t interested. A political newcomer, he’d just been elected attorney general a few months earlier and didn’t expect to seek another office so soon. He also said he was under the impression that Wagner would be running for Senate and wouldn’t challenge her.
“There was a flurry in the late spring of people who were like, ‘Josh, you know, you should do this,’ and I just said, ‘I don’t have any interest in that. It’s not my plan. Ann’s going to run. She’s going to be great,’” he recalled.
When the congresswoman announced that she wouldn’t seek the seat, Hawley said he was shocked.
In the ensuing weeks, a lineup of prominent local and national politicos, including former Ambassador Sam Fox, former Sen. John Danforth and Vice President Mike Pence, pressed Hawley to jump in. After a month of discussions with his wife, Erin, with whom he has two young sons, the attorney general decided to give it a go because, he said, the country was at a "generational crossroads."
“It’s an open secret in this state and it’s no secret at all, this is not a race I had intended to run,” he said.
Behind the scenes, Hawley is moving to assure Republicans in Missouri and Washington that his campaign is on track. He has been telling grass-roots activists that he had more work to do as attorney general but would soon be picking up the pace on the campaign trail. Over the next several months, Hawley will be unveiling a series of policy proposals, a campaign aide said.
He has also shored up his fundraising team, installing Missouri native Katie Walsh, a former Republican National Committee chief of staff, as a top aide.
Through the end of March, Hawley had raised just $3.2 million, less than one-fifth of what McCaskill has taken in — a glaring shortfall that was on the minds of a group of powerful GOP donors who huddled with Hawley in Manhattan on a recent evening. Over plates of beef and branzini, one of the donors questioned Hawley about the deficit.
It was true, Hawley conceded to the New York City crowd, according to three people in attendance. He needed to raise more money.
In the interview, Hawley said he expected McCaskill would raise over $25 million and that his own goal is at least $12 million. Party leaders and outside GOP groups are racing to make up the difference. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas has headlined fundraisers for the candidate in Houston and New York City, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is hitting up donors on Hawley’s behalf, and Pence will headline a fundraiser for him on Friday. Kit Bond, a former Missouri senator and governor, has offered to host a fundraiser for Hawley.
The America Rising Missouri super PAC, meanwhile, has briefed donors on a $7 million blueprint aimed at helping to “level the playing field, and take the fight to McCaskill.”
Hawley’s shakeup has soothed the concerns of some national Republicans. Earlier this spring, Steven Law, a top political lieutenant of McConnell and president of the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, wrote a memo to major GOP donors in which he contended that Hawley had “failed to capitalize on the first several months of his candidacy, squandering valuable time to fundraise and solidify intraparty support.”
But Walsh’s hiring has made a big difference, Law said in an email. Over the past month, he argued, Hawley had made substantial inroads with big donors — many of whom regarded the attorney general as a rising GOP star, as they had in previous years with Cotton and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The attorney general recently attended a donor conference hosted by New York City hedge fund manager Paul Singer and left a strong impression.
“Bottom line: Many people were concerned about fundraising at the start of the year,” Law said. “There’s lots of evidence that has since turned around dramatically.”
Ed Martin, a prominent conservative activist and former Missouri GOP chair, said he initially harbored doubts about Hawley. But after meeting with him recently, Martin said he came away convinced that the candidate cut the right profile in a state that Trump won by nearly 20 points.
“He’s got to do some more, he’s got to show some more energy. But I think he’s right where he needs to be,” Martin said.
Some of the conservative rank and file, though, feel that Hawley has taken them for granted.
This spring, he missed a string of annual local GOP Lincoln Day dinners — including in Boone County, where he resides. Rosa Robb, the county GOP’s vice chair, said she was told that Hawley had other commitments. (A Hawley aide said the attorney general was tied up with official business.)
Mark Anthony Jones, the Republican chairman in Jackson County, the second-most populous county in the state, said Hawley skipped his organization’s March dinner and instead sent a surrogate. Jones said he’s had no outreach from the candidate.
“It’s as if he doesn’t feel like he needs to go out and campaign and that he’s the heir apparent,” Jones said. “I’m for anybody but Hawley. I don’t like the arrogance.”
Trish Mitchell, the GOP chair in conservative Franklin County, said she was upset but not surprised that Hawley didn’t show up to her Lincoln Day dinner.
"I'm keeping up with where's he's been going and he's pretty much not going to any of them," she said. "Someone running for public office that is supposed to be working for the people is supposed to be among the people."
To some degree, Hawley’s plans have been complicated by scandal-plagued GOP Gov. Eric Greitens, who is under investigation by Hawley’s office. Hawley had been expected to attend the Newton & Jasper Counties Lincoln Day dinner but ended up not going because the governor would be there and he wanted to avoid being present at the same political functions.
Some Republicans, though, remain perplexed.
Earlier this month, Marc Cox, a conservative radio show host in St. Louis, took to the airwaves to complain that he couldn’t get Hawley on his program. At one point during the show, Cox and his befuddled co-hosts noticed that the Missouri attorney general was conducting an interview with a national cable outlet, Fox News.
“I’m just going to point out,” Cox said, “we’ve put in multiple requests to get him on the air here and we’ve not had any success with that.”
“Well, he’s obviously busy,” one of Cox’s cohorts chortled. “He’s on 'Fox & Friends.'”
A few days later, Hawley called into Cox’s program.
At one point, the host asked Hawley whether he planned to participate in any debates with his GOP primary opponents. The candidate dodged.
“You know my focus, Marc, is on Claire McCaskill,” Hawley responded. “100 percent.”