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Women voters may be the prime target in Missouri’s Senate contest

Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley and Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill
Durrie Bouscaren & Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

For U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the political question may well be whether lightning can strike twice.

In Missouri, 2012 was shaping up to be a strong Republican election year when the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, Todd Akin, went on St. Louis TV station Fox2 and offered up his opinion regarding why an abortion ban wouldn’t affect rape victims:

“If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has  ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” 
Now, some in both parties wonder if a replay is looming.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is McCaskill’s best-known GOP challenger in her bid this fall for a third term. He’s now under fire for his recent assertion that the sexual revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s helped fuel the sex-trafficking trade.

Hawley says he’s no Akin, and accuses McCaskill of  highlighting his comments to distract the public from other issues – notably her opposition to the federal tax cuts that now are going into effect.

Republican concerns may be fueled by the 2012 fallout. Akin’s comments sparked a national debate over reproductive rights, and is credited with helping Democrats keep control of the U.S. Senate for two more years.

In Missouri, McCaskill’s 15-point victory in 2012 gave a boost to most fellow Democrats down the ballot– despite Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s equally strong showing in the state.

Analysts believe that most of the state’s 400,000 split-ticket voters in 2012 – who backed Romney and McCaskill – were women. Especially suburban women, who could be the key swing voters this fall.

That backdrop  offers context to some of the Republican hand-wringing about Hawley’s assertions about the rise in sex trafficking.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill answers a question from Missouri state Rep. Michael Butler. Jan. 27, 2018
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, answers a question during a town hall she held on January 27, 2018 at Harris-Stowe University.

But Hawley is not backing down from his view that Hollywood and the media have contributed to sex trafficking by promoting the sexual exploitation of women.

“There’s a reason that we have a growing epidemic nationally and in our state,” Hawley told St. Louis Public Radio at last weekend’s GOP Lincoln Days gathering in Kansas City.

“And the reason is that people will buy forced sex. And by people, I mean men. It’s overwhelmingly men, so if we’re going to stop sex trafficking, we have got to change this culture of exploitation of women.”

Hawley’s allies believe his views are shared with most of the GOP base, and could boost his support.

McCaskill defends birth control

McCaskill has sent out a fundraising letter calling such comments “stupid and ignorant.”  She accuses Hawley of really taking aim at the sexual revolution’s success in creating more freedom for women and expanding access to birth control.

The senator points to Hawley’s role as one of the lawyers in the Hobby Lobby case, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that businesses can refuse to provide insurance for contraception if it’s against their religious beliefs.

“So anyone who’s fighting to keep women from getting birth control is someone who’s actually indirectly fighting to increase the number of abortions,” McCaskill said. “Because if you don‘t have birth control, that’s how unwanted pregnancies occur. And that’s why abortions happen.”

Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, in blue shirt, mingles with fellow Republicans who stopped by his hospitality suite at the stat GOP's Lincoln Days festivities in Kansas City.

McCaskill delivered that jab while defending her recent vote against a Senate bill that would ban abortions after a woman has been pregnant for 20 weeks. Hawley has attacked her vote, and emphasized that he would support such a ban. It is sought by abortion opponents, who say fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks.

Said Hawley: “We’re one of what, only seven countries I think that permit abortions at that late stage. I think we don’t want to be in the company of China, North Korea and those others. So the fact that Senator McCaskill would take such an extreme position, I think, is out of step for our state.”

Opponents of the ban note that few abortions are conducted after 20 weeks, and say most are because of serious health issues involving the fetus or the pregnant woman.

McCaskill says a broader issue is at stake. “My vote on this is in line with what I’ve said for a long time about this subject. We all need to be focused on how we can prevent abortion. Not on how we can criminalize women and doctors.”

Gender politics may be at play

Both candidates appear to be aiming their arguments at women voters, especially those in the suburbs. Analysts in both parties say privately that who women support – and how many women turn out – could decide the outcome in Missouri’s U.S. Senate contest. It's among a handful in the country likely to determine which party controls the U.S. Senate in January 2019.

That could explain why Hawley and McCaskill are both framing their arguments in terms that could appeal to women.

U.S. Rep Ann Wagner, a Republican from Ballwin, raised $804,000 from Jan. 1 to March 31.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Republican from Ballwin

The issue of gender also appears to be fueling some of the behind-the-scenes talk about whether U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner of Ballwin might be a stronger Republican opponent against McCaskill, because Wagner is a woman.

Wagner had been expected to challenge McCaskill, but dropped out last summer, in part because many GOP leaders and donors supported Hawley instead.  He had been Missouri’s top Republican vote-getter in 2016. And Wagner has never run for a statewide office in Missouri. Some close to her said last weekend she has no plans to enter the Senate race.

An intriguing aside in the debate over who’s to blame for the rise in sex trafficking is the fact that Hawley, McCaskill and Wagner are on the same page when it comes to the need to stop it. All three have taken on prominent roles in that effort.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.