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Governors Ham Breakfast

US. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., talks with Missouri Attorney General and likely Republican challenger Josh Hawley during the Governor's Ham Breakfast at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Mo., on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Missouri primary voters set the table for one of the most-watched U.S. Senate races of 2018, when Republicans on Tuesday nominated Attorney General Josh Hawley to face the Democratic nominee, incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Hawley, with the backing of Missouri’s Republican establishment and President Donald Trump, easily cleared an 11-candidate Republican primary field. Second place was a distant scramble among ex-Air Force pilot Tony Monetti, former Libertarian Austin Petersen and Kristi Nichols, who received 20 percent of the vote in a primary challenge of Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in 2016.

Hawley and McCaskill challenged each other to a series of one-on-one debates. Hawley called on McCaskill to join him for debates on the back of a flatbed truck; McCaskill called for four “town hall” debates in addition to the one already planned by the Missouri Press Association.

“It’s time to send partisan, phony {a class=”twitter-atreply pretty-link js-nav” href=”https://twitter.com/clairecmc” data-mentioned-user-id=”16160352”}@clairecmc {/a} packing!” he tweeted, shortly after The Associated Press called his win in the GOP primary. In a victory speech in Springfield, Hawley said that “her years of ignoring Missouri voters are coming to an end.”

McCaskill, who swept aside token opposition in her own party, is one of a handful of Democratic senators facing re-election in states won by Trump. That makes Missouri pivotal in the battle over control of the Senate in the last two years of Trump’s term. Trump and surrogates are expected to campaign heavily for Republicans in the region.

McCaskill, 65, is trying for her third Senate term in a political career that began with her election to the Missouri statehouse in 1982, when Hawley, 38, was two years old. She defeated incumbent Republican Jim Talent in 2006, then won re-election in 2012 over Republican Todd Akin.

But this year Hawley poses different challenges for McCaskill. Trump won Missouri by almost 19 percentage points in 2016. And Hawley, who announced after Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, decided not to run, will campaign as a Trump backer, a candidate more reflective of Missouri’s values.

McCaskill, who vowed Tuesday to “never stop being an independent voice for Missouri,” said she believed momentum was on the Democrats’ side, comparing this year with her first Senate campaign in 2006, when Democrats took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in a dozen years.

“I think the enthusiasm (for Democrats) on the ground is even higher than 2006, and I have data points that kind of bear that out,” McCaskill said. “The number of volunteers that are actively working volunteer shifts blows away the numbers of both ’06 and ’12.”

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