Missouri Republicans have a big issue on their hands- and it comes in the form of the 2018 United States Senate race. The race seemed to be shored up and settled before it even began, with a decided winner over a year ago. That all changed this month as Republican heavyweight Congresswoman Ann Wagner announced she would seek re-election and forego a run for the Senate.
Wagner, who had been rumored to have her eyes set on the Senate as early as 2012, had built a large camp in 2016 to prepare for a 2018 Senate run. She had quit her House leadership roles, gained the interest of donor Rex Sinquefield and Mitch McConnell, and raised well over $2 million after November 2016, one of the highest of any Republican official or candidate in the State of Missouri for that quarter. Republicans around the state expected to back her as the default nominee. Then, in April of this year, several prominent Republican including donors and former officials, penned an open letter urging newly elected Attorney General Josh Hawley to run. Then, one of the largest donors in Missouri pushed his network to not donate any money, to any candidate, including Wagner, until Hawley had made an announcement of his intentions.
This urging pushed more and more Republicans to urge Hawley to run. Hawley, a social conservative who worked in the landmark Hobby Lobby case, ran for office for the first time for Attorney General of the state of Missouri. In his messaging, he attacked his opponents as “climbing the ladder” into higher offices. With less than a year in office, he’s weighing in on a run for the United States Senate.
As rumors flew, Missourians were shocked to hear an announcement from Ann Wagner. She would not be running for the Senate. With the heavyweight out of the race, and Hawley yet to make a decision, the race to defeat Claire McCaskill was blown wide open. The first to seize the momentum is Austin Petersen, former Libertarian presidential candidate turned Republican, who hopes to bring liberty-minded conservatives together. Petersen, who placed second to Gary Johnson last year, has a national donor and volunteer network but little name ID within Missouri. His campaign ground game is already being formed.
Other possible contenders include State Representative Paul Curtman, who is expected to make a decision in the next few weeks. Curtman has good name recognition and is often known for his firebrand passion for conservatism and strong conservative record. Other contenders may be State Treasurer Eric Schmitt, Missouri’s leading voice of economic conservatism, as well as Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer and several others.
The larger the field, the more trouble Republicans will have, and when facing Claire McCaskill, there can be no weak candidates. Despite her toxic approval ratings, McCaskill is a master manipulator. Missouri conservatives remember all too well in 2012, where McCaskill manipulated the Republican primary and fed voter data and money to the weakest and indignant candidate, Todd Akin, a tactic she proudly admitted in her book, Pretty Ladylike. Going into 2018, Missouri Republicans need to back a strong conservative that can appeal to every voter. Missouri can’t afford to send McCaskill back to Washington.