Can Missouri’s Young Man in a Hurry Outrun His State’s Scandal?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Republican U.S. Senate contender Josh Hawley is on the fast track — if he can win one of the year’s toughest races.
By Daniel Malloy
This OZY encore first appeared in 2018 before Hawley joined the U.S. Senate. As 2021 arrives, he is an emerging Republican star — and potential contender for the presidency in 2024.
The hype is easy to understand as soon as Josh Hawley steps in front of a crowd, like on a sweltering Memorial Day in Springfield, Missouri, where, in just 3.5 minutes, his rich baritone has hundreds captivated by a rousing lesson on the history of the holiday. It’s moments like these when you start to imagine a national stage for Missouri’s 38-year-old attorney general and former U.S. Supreme Court clerk.
But hours earlier, as Hawley makes the rounds at a nearby breakfast spot, you can also see the problem he faces in his quest to join the U.S. Senate: GOP voters hassling him about his handling of a messy scandal with the Republican governor — who resigned the following day after being accused of assaulting his mistress and trying to blackmail her. Hawley, meanwhile, tries to say “secure the border” and reference President Donald Trump as often as possible. In his telling, the talented attorney was dragged into running both for A.G. in 2016 and now the Senate against two-term Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill. D.C. and Missouri Republican insiders see a supremely smart political natural, perfect for one of the nation’s marquee races, with control of the Senate in the balance. But Hawley has been accused of lacking a campaign work ethic, and even in a state Trump won by nearly 19 percentage points, Democrats could seize the midterm momentum.
At a barbecue joint in Springfield, Hawley lets out a booming laugh when I bring up a Politico story using his midday trips to the gym as evidence that he lacks sufficient will for the campaign trail. “You are under a microscope all the time, that’s for sure,” he says.
He is a smart guy and capable of handling a learning curve.
Karl Rove, GOP operative
But Hawley says the scrutiny and time away from his postcard-worthy family is worth it, as he feels called back to Washington to fight for a dwindling middle class. While his platform aligns neatly with Trump’s agenda, Hawley’s message is not quite Trump’s racialized appeal to White men longing for a return to an earlier time. Painting in softer brush strokes, Hawley considers the campaign an “opportunity to speak up for that Middle America way of life that I come from, that I live.”
That’s not to confuse “middle” with “average.” The son of a banker and a schoolteacher, Hawley grew up in Lexington, Missouri, spending a lot of time at his grandparents’ nearby farm. For high school he commuted 50 miles each way into Kansas City to attend the Catholic all-boys Rockhurst High School, even though Hawley was raised United Methodist and identifies as Evangelical Protestant. You wouldn’t guess it from his beanpole frame, but he played on the football team’s offensive line — “I was a bigger boy back then.” The valedictorian embraced challenges and was not aloof like other star students, says Eric Berg, Hawley’s football coach. “He didn’t apologize for the talent and ability that he had, and he didn’t hold that over anybody’s head either,” Berg says. “To see what he’s doing now, no, I gotta be honest, it really is not a surprise.”
At Stanford, Hawley found his political opinions shaped by the university’s conservative Hoover Institution — and sharpened during debates with classmates in a left-leaning environment. “You learn what you believe, and you learn to articulate and defend it,” he says. He interned at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, where he was thrilled to meet the likes of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and columnist George F. Will — two men who reflect their movement’s divide. While Gingrich has become one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, Will renounced the Republican Party altogether. Count Hawley in Newt’s camp: “The president is trying to take the country, but also the conservative movement, in a different direction, which I think is needed. And it’s disruptive.”
As a student at Yale Law School, Hawley was inspired by Justice Antonin Scalia to become a constitutional lawyer. He later clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts, marveling at the panoply of legal issues that filled the Supreme Court’s docket, and he shared an office with fellow clerk Erin Morrow, who would become his wife. The Hawleys were both hired by high-powered D.C. law firms, but in 2011 they moved to Missouri to teach law at the University of Missouri and start a family: Their towheaded sons are now 5 and 3. Josh Hawley also worked for the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, pursuing cases such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Inc., in which his side convinced the Supreme Court to allow private employers with a religious objection to deny employee health insurance coverage for contraceptives. Paul McCaughey, a friend who describes Hawley as a “caring man,” says Hawley led an engaging men’s Bible study and cooks a mean dry-rubbed flank steak.
Public service was on Hawley’s mind — he wrote in a 2013 email revealed in a public records request and reported by the Huffington Post: “Part of my decision to move back to Missouri was political.” Still, his campaigns were the result more of circumstance and external pressure than a grand master plan, he insists. Hawley was recruited to run for attorney general in 2016, critiquing Jefferson City “career politicians just climbing the ladder, using one office to get another,” and won more votes than any statewide candidate.
Almost immediately came the pitch from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, legendary GOP operative Karl Rove and Trump, among others, for Hawley to take on McCaskill, a wily incumbent known as a tough campaigner. Rove says he’s confident in Hawley’s victory, while hinting at the criticism his Senate campaign has taken. Hawley’s “attorney general campaign was kind of a rag-tag campaign, put together with friends and family and people he met along the way,” Rove says. “He is a smart guy and capable of handling a learning curve.”
The biggest challenge for Hawley might come from his day job and how it entangles him with former Gov. Eric Greitens. As the state’s chief prosecutor, Hawley’s office found evidence of felony wrongdoing in Greitens’ use of a charity donor list for his campaign. Then, in April, Hawley called on the governor to resign after a Missouri House investigative commission concluded that the governor had bound and slapped a hairdresser with whom he was having an affair, and took a nude photo of her to blackmail her. Greitens resisted initially before resigning in May.
Many in the GOP base believe that Greitens was unfairly railroaded — Sigi Hill, of Ozark, compares the “deep state” of Jefferson City to the Washington version Trump says is targeting him — and that Hawley should have had the governor’s back. While Greitens’ resignation is seen as a political gift to Hawley to remove the toxic governor from the headlines, he could always resurface with a grudge against the A.G. In Tuesday’s Republican primary, Hawley won overwhelmingly, but took home less than 60 percent of the overall vote against several no-name candidates — leaving ample work to do to unite the GOP.
Democrats, meanwhile, say Hawley was too soft on Greitens in a separate investigation about public records laws and he only turned on the governor when it became politically expedient. They are eager to link Hawley with Greitens, starting with millions in advertising from a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Chris Hayden, spokesman for Senate Majority PAC, notes that Hawley and Greitens ran in 2016 as outsiders pledging to clean up a corrupt Jefferson City. “That brand has been completely tarnished,” Hayden says.
Hawley spokeswoman Kelli Ford points out: “There’s nothing politically expedient about calling on the sitting governor of your own party to resign.” She contends it’s “shameful” for McCaskill and her allies to politicize the ugly episode, both for the state and the families involved.
Today Hawley is running as a Washington outsider, contending that McCaskill owns the dysfunction that makes Missourians “furious” at the nation’s capital and vowing to help provide “reinforcements” for Trump in the Senate. Once there, Hawley dreams of making a big impact on confirming conservative judges and other legal issues, while working closely with neighboring Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton — a national conservative star. Come 2019, Hawley could supplant Cotton as the youngest U.S. senator, with few rungs left to climb.
OZY reporter Nick Fouriezos contributed to this story.
OZY partners with McClatchy to bring you premium political analysis.