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Hawley announces U.S. Senate bid, setting up possible showdown with McCaskill

Josh Hawley takes part in a debate.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley announced Tuesday that he will challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley will run for the United States Senate next year, ending months of speculation and intrigue about whether the 37-year-old would take on another high-profile statewide race.

It’s a move that could put Hawley on a collision course with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, provided that he can get past his current crowd of opponents in the Republican primary.

Hawley made Tuesday's Senate announcement in a web video, which features the Yale-educated attorney with his wife, Erin Hawley, and their two children. After asking “who would have thought this past election would have gotten the attention of some folks in D.C.?” Hawley then says “the D.C. career crowd keeps on doing the same thing — and you know, the system works pretty well for them.”

“Here in Missouri, we know too many people who can’t get a job — or if they’ve got a job they can’t get a raise,” Hawley said. “Farmers are hurting, and that means farm kids can’t come home. And as for health care and taxes? They just keep going up. Erin and I decided we have to do something about it. And that’s why next year I’m going to run for the United States Senate.”

McCaskill’s bid for a third term is widely considered to be one of the most competitive Senate races in the country in 2018. The Democratic statewide official soundly defeated then-U.S. Rep. Todd Akin in 2012, but barely won her first election in 2006 against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Talent. Before becoming a senator, McCaskill served as state auditor and Jackson County prosecutor.

Hawley previously had worked as a law professor and as a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Hawley also attracted a conservative following for some of his cases, most notably as part of the legal team that successfully represented Hobby Lobby when it challenged the Affordable Care Act's birth-control coverage mandate.

Hawley’s decision to run for the Senate two years after being elected attorney general is not unprecedented. Back in 1970, Republican John Danforth unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington after settling into the attorney general’s office that he had won in 1968.

Danforth has been a major supporter of Hawley’s possible Senate bid, along with key GOP donors — notably businessmen Sam Fox and David Humphreys.

Still, Hawley’s decision is something of an about-face for someone who criticized “career politicians” who “climbed up the ladder” during his successful attorney general campaign in 2016. In fact, when he was asked last year if he would swear off running for another office, like U.S. Senate, if he was elected, Hawley replied: “I’m not running to get this job to do that or this or the other thing.”

Hawley ended up beating two political veterans, Republican Kurt Schaefer and Democrat Teresa Hensley, last year by substantial margins.

In a statement reacting to Hawley's latest announcement, McCaskill campaign manager David Kirby said that Hawley "broke his promise not to climb the political ladder." 

"We applaud Josh for coming clean about his intention to run and look forward to contrasting his record of broken promises with Claire's record of listening to Missourians and breaking through gridlock to get things done for them," Kirby said.

At least three other Republicans have announced U.S. Senate bids, including Austin Peterson, Tony Monetti and Courtland Sykes. State Reps. Paul Curtman and Marsha Haefner are also considering running, as well as University of Missouri-Columbia economics professor Aaron Hedlund and conservative activist Ed Martin.

Hawley has sought to discourage such opposition by reaching out to President Donald Trump's former top strategist, Steve Bannon, who is also the head of the online publication Breitbart. Bannon is assembling a list of GOP U.S. Senate contenders that he plans to promote.

Meanwhile, Hawley has been under pressure from some conservatives, notably Martin, who have been calling on him to disavow Danforth's criticisms of Trump.

Outside groups already are weighing in. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued a statement Tuesday that accused Hawley of failing to follow through with his campaign promises when he ran for attorney general last year. And at least a half-dozen conservative groups have been running ads against McCaskill.

Blunt pledges to support GOP nominee, but also praises McCaskill

Missouri’s other U.S. senator, Republican Roy Blunt, offered a measured reaction Tuesday to Hawley’s announcement.

At a healthcare event in St. Louis, Blunt told reporters that he eventually will endorse a Senate candidate and “will support the Republican nominee’’ who ends up challenging McCaskill.

Still, he offered favorable observations about his Democratic counterpart.

“We often don’t vote the same, but we generally are able to work together on things that affect our state,” Blunt said. “I think we have a good relationship. She is very capable and we work well together.”

Political reporter Jo Mannies contributed some information for this report.

Follow Jason: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.