Josh Hawley isn’t on the ballot, but he’s still a factor in Missouri’s Senate race

Democrats are seeking to tie Hawley to GOP Sen. Roy Blunt

Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley in the House chamber on Jan. 6 for a joint session to certify Electoral College votes in the 2020 presidential election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley in the House chamber on Jan. 6 for a joint session to certify Electoral College votes in the 2020 presidential election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 10, 2021 at 11:00am, Updated at 7:16pm

Missouri Democrat Scott Sifton’s video launching his Senate campaign opened with an image of his state’s Republican senator — but not the one who’s up for reelection next year. 

“When he raised his fist and betrayed our democracy, Josh Hawley showed us who he really is,” Sifton, a former state senator, says in the video as a widely shared image of Hawley greeting supporters of President Donald Trump outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 dissolves into scenes of rioters, fired up by Trump’s and Hawley’s false claims of election fraud, smashing their way into the building. 

The video then pivots to GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, who is up for a third term in 2022, with Sifton saying that Blunt “was too weak to stand up to his party’s lies, he showed us who he is too.”

The decision to feature Hawley as well as Blunt underscores a broader Democratic strategy to focus on the high-profile first-term senator as they take on Blunt in a state once considered a battleground but now dominated by Republicans.

Invoking Hawley

Sifton consultant Eric Hyers said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that Hawley perpetuated a lie about the presidential election “because he thought it would help his own political future.”

Hyers said Blunt “just stood by and watched, too weak to call out the lie, and we see where it led. That’s not leadership. Sen. Blunt should be held accountable for his failure to speak out and defend our democracy. This election is an opportunity to send a strong message that Missourians deserve better.”

A Blunt spokeswoman declined to comment.

Blunt, who said last month that he was “planning on reelection, but I haven’t made a final statement on that yet,” has tended to have a lower state favorability rating than Hawley, according to political science professor Kenneth Warren, associate director of the Saint Louis University/YouGov poll. 

But Hawley’s push to challenge four states’ Electoral College results thrust him into the national spotlight, and his approval rating has dropped in some surveys.

According to Morning Consult’s polling, on Jan. 5, 43 percent of Missouri voters surveyed did not approve of Hawley, while 42 percent approved. On Jan. 18, 49 percent said they did not approve of Hawley, while his approval rating dropped to 36 percent. 

“Everyone’s talking about Josh Hawley,” Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Michael Butler said, adding that some voters feel “betrayed” by Republicans.   

For his part, Blunt waited until after states’ electors cast their votes in mid-December to say that Joe Biden was the president-elect. As the top Republican on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, Blunt was one of four lawmakers charged with counting those votes on Jan. 6.

Blunt opposed the effort to challenge the electoral results, telling reporters at the Capitol in early January that the gambit from Hawley and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had no chance of succeeding. After the Jan. 6 riot, Blunt told told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Trump’s actions “that day and leading up to that day on this topic were clearly reckless.”

For Democrats, that wasn’t enough. And they now see an opportunity to tie Blunt to the junior senator. 

“I was not surprised to see Scott center Hawley,” former Missouri state Rep. Don Calloway said.

“It’s also an indictment of the Republican Party,” Calloway added. But he noted Democrats can only get so far running against Hawley “particularly when he’s not even the candidate.”

Recent losses

Calloway said the questions facing Sifton and Democrats looking to tie Blunt to Hawley are whether the “legacy Republicans” who have criticized Hawley are willing to support a Democrat and whether those Republicans are reflective of most Missouri GOP voters. 

It appears that they aren’t. In the Morning Consult poll, Hawley saw a drop in his approval among Missouri Republicans, but he remained popular, with 63 percent saying they approved of the GOP senator.

Greg Keller, a Republican strategist who advised the Missouri GOP during the 2018 race, said Democrats were trying to “nationalize the race” after losing statewide in recent elections.

Hawley’s campaign shared an memo showing more voters approve of the job he’s doing than disapprove. It also downplayed corporate PACs’ announcements they would stop donating to him, and said the campaign raised $969,000 in January, including funds from 12,000 new donors.

The Show-Me State was once considered a battleground, but it has shifted toward the Republicans in recent election cycles. In 2012,  Democrats won four of the five statewide executive offices, and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill defeated controversial Republican Todd Akin by 16 points. 

Four years later, Trump carried the Missouri by 19 points, while Republicans swept the five statewide executive offices. Blunt also won a second term, defeating the outgoing Democratic secretary of state, Jason Kander, by just 3 points.

In 2018, Hawley unseated McCaskill by 6 points. And last fall, Trump won the state by 15 points, as GOP Gov. Mike Parsons defeated Democrat Nicole Galloway by 16 points. Galloway, who did not give up her job as state auditor, which is up in 2022, is the only remaining Democrat in statewide office.

Warren, the political science professor who is also a Democrat, said Trump boosted GOP turnout in rural parts of the state, which had been building over multiple election cycles. 

“The swelling of the rural vote … that’s what has allowed Republicans to win,” Warren said. “The Democratic vote has increased somewhat in Jackson County, or the Kansas City area, the St. Louis area, but it just hasn’t been enough to offset this enormous increase in rural counties.”

Democrats acknowledge that winning statewide is an uphill battle, but some think they have a shot.

“Margins matter,” one Democrat familiar with the race said. “Democrats don’t have to win a majority of counties. They need to trim margins where they can and drive up turnout where they can as well.”

Democrats first have to contend with a Senate primary, and some in the state said Sifton, whom Galloway endorsed, is a top contender.  Two other Democrats have already filed statements of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission: Marine veteran Lucas Kunce and activist Tim Shepard. 

Kunce wrote in an email that he is seriously exploring a Senate run, and acknowledged, “Everyone is definitely talking about Josh Hawley.” Kunce signaled he plans to make an economic case against Blunt if he decides to run.

Shepard said he does not plan to feature Hawley prominently in his own race, describing Hawley as “a symptom of a larger problem.” To start winning again, Shepard said Missouri Democrats should focus on a progressive, populist agenda, and on rebuilding their party infrastructure.

“What Democratic club organizers say, and activists across the state are telling me, [is] they’ve felt abandoned by the Democratic Party in recent years,” Shepard said.

Butler, the state Democratic Party chairman, said rebuilding the party is also going to take investment from national Democrats. He believes it can be done, but acknowledged it could take more than one election cycle.