JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Republicans have coalesced around Attorney General Josh Hawley as their favored candidate to challenge veteran Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2018, which would set up a marquee contest between a wily incumbent and an up-and-coming political novice in a state that has trended conservative.
McCaskill is among 10 Senate Democrats running in states won by President Donald Trump, making the Missouri race a prime opportunity to flip a seat to Republicans. The GOP now has a narrow majority of 52 Senate seats.
Former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, who's pushing Hawley to run, said Wednesday that he last spoke with him on the phone a few weeks ago but there is a "very high likelihood that he will become a candidate."
Hawley, 37, is considered an emerging GOP star who was just elected attorney general in 2016. He was among attorneys who helped prepare a Hobby Lobby case before the U.S. Supreme Court over whether private companies can cite religious objections to opt out of contraceptive coverage under President Barack Obama's health care law. He also worked as an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and campaigned for limited government and religious liberties.
"He would be a perfect candidate," said Republican political strategist James Harris, who worked with Hawley when he entered the race for attorney general.
Politico, citing two Republicans it did not name, reported that Hawley associates said he planned to run and National Journal, also citing unnamed sources, said he is expected to challenge McCaskill.
Hawley's spokesman, Scott Paradise, said last week the attorney general is "seriously considering" the race and Paradise confirmed that Vice President Mike Pence called Hawley earlier this month. Hawley's office did not immediately respond Wednesday to requests for further comment.
Danforth and prominent donor David Humphreys are among several high-profile Republicans who in April released a public letter encouraging Hawley. Big Missouri donor Sam Fox sent a June letter that asked other GOP donors not to give to other candidates while Hawley decided whether to run.
While Missouri once was known as a reliable bellwether state in presidential elections, it broke from that tradition when Obama first ran for office. It's trended red in recent years, and the last Democratic president Missouri predicted was former President Bill Clinton.
The Republican field appears clear for Hawley. Republican U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, once considered the favorite in party circles to take on McCaskill, earlier in July announced she would run for re-election instead. U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler on Monday said the same. That leaves Treasurer Eric Schmitt as the only other well-known Republican looking at entering the race.
By coalescing around Hawley, Republicans could avoid a repeat of 2012 when McCaskill admitted she meddled in the GOP primary and succeeded in getting the challenger she considered the weakest, former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin.
She ran an ad campaign in the Republican primary criticizing Akin as ultra-conservative and urging voters not to pick him, a move she's described as "reverse psychology."
Akin won the GOP nomination. That quickly backfired when 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.
Republicans still are smarting from that race as they look forward to 2018, said GOP strategist Harris.
"They would like to avoid a divisive primary," he said.
Preparing for a bruising fight, McCaskill, 63, has positioned herself as a moderate and spent the July 4 congressional break holding town halls in rural mid-Missouri. Despite her vulnerability, she's a skilled candidate who's succeeded even in tough campaigns.
She's shifted her position on a bill known as "Kate's Law," an immigration measure that would impose harsher prison sentences on deportees who re-enter the United States. McCaskill initially was against it, but recently indicated she would probably support it if the measure no longer requires mandatory minimum sentences.
Hawley faces accusations of excessive ambition in jumping to a race for federal office after only seven months as attorney general. He ran an ad during the attorney general's race that decried "career politicians just climbing the ladder, using one office to get another."
Even before Hawley announced, McCaskill's campaign reminded voters of that promise.
"For a guy who promised Missourians he wasn't just a ladder-climbing politician, he sure is taking a lot of advice from Washington, D.C. politicians on how to quickly climb that ladder," McCaskill's campaign manager David Kirby said in a statement.