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Raasch: How Missouri goes Tuesday, so goes the nation – and not just in 2018

Raasch: How Missouri goes Tuesday, so goes the nation – and not just in 2018

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WASHINGTON • Two moments in the U.S. Senate campaign between Republican Josh Hawley and Democrat Claire McCaskill resonate far beyond the result of Tuesday’s election between them.

One came in Sen. McCaskill’s declaration last month that she’s not one of those “crazy Democrats.” The reference was easy to discern: The protesters interrupting the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings and shouting Republican politicians out of restaurants.

It was bold but risky, a recognition that McCaskill was facing voters that had given President Donald Trump a landslide in Missouri two scarce years ago. It threatened to turn off liberal activists and lay bare the schism between the Trump resistance, socialism and social action new wing of the party vs. the New Deal coalition of the working class economics and social justice politics that you can still find in many parts of Missouri.

McCaskill seemed to be taking sides with the latter while depending on the votes of the former. Tuesday will tell if that strategy worked.

The other moment came in August of 2017, when former Missouri Republican Sen. John Danforth, a Republican who convinced Hawley to run, wrote a blistering opinion piece declaring that Trump was more akin to George Wallace than Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president.

“We are the party of the Union, and (Trump) is the most divisive president in our history,” Danforth wrote.

But Attorney General Hawley still hitched to the Trump train and its pro-business, America First, anti-immigration, anti-regulation, speak-loudly-and-carry-a-big-stick policies.

The Danforth episode exposed the Republican Party’s deep divisions between that populist, anti-establishment Tea Party strain of Trumpism vs. the more traditional coalition of businesses, social conservatives, and the binary anti-Russian foreign policy of Ronald Reagan represented by Danforth.

So Missouri is a microcosm of what’s cleaving the two national parties, and the greater questions facing the country on election eve.

“The first thing that strikes me about this race is we don’t know who is going to turn out, and in what numbers,” said David Robertson, head of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “That is true everywhere, but particularly in Missouri.

“We’re interested in how young people are going to turn out, how suburban women are going to turn out, and how blacks are going to turn out.

“And who will working class whites (who voted for Trump in droves in ’16) turn out to vote for,” Robertson said. “Those four things are unknown unknowns now.”

Will 2018 be a straight line to 2020, or a pivot point to something entirely new?

Will it continue the Trump makeover of the Republican Party, set the stage for his re-election in 2020, and set the course of the country for decades thereafter? Will a transition of Democrats be led by suburban women — the one group that has turned on Trump the most?

Polls suggest a pushback to Trump among women could be strong.

And in an MTV poll released last week, 71 percent of young voters deemed this the most important election of their lives, a hint that traditionally abysmal turnout among 20-somethings in nonpresidential elections may be higher this year.

But that union, working-class vote is harder to judge. Economically, they became Democrats with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Culturally, many have been Republicans since Reagan. They drove the landslide defeat of the right-to-work Proposition A in August. Hawley was for it, McCaskill against it.

“These are people who like their unions, but they also like to hunt and they hear about how terrible abortion is every week in church,” Robertson said. “They are torn in a couple different directions. I expect a split decision.”

Working-class Missourians “voted strongly for Trump, for (Republican Sen. Roy) Blunt, for (former Gov. Eric) Greitens in the 2016 election,” Robertson added. “If they are still Trump voters, I am not sure why they would vote for McCaskill.”

On the Republican side, Robertson said, “there are very deep cleavages between the sort of nationalist working class populist streams in the Republican coalition that provides a whole lot of votes, and the more traditional moderate business Republicans that provide some of the votes but a whole lot more of the money for advertising.

“It has been there for a long time and we have wondered when it was going to surface more strikingly,” he said. “And it looks like it is doing that now.”

Finally, mercifully, the attack ads that have taken over Missouri and Metro East airwaves for months will go silent. But the first votes of the 2020 presidential primaries are only 15 months away.

Hawley vs. McCaskill: Coverage of the 2018 Senate race

Post-Dispatch coverage of the 2018 race for Missouri's U.S. Senate seat.

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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