Subscribe for 99 cents

Missouri Attorney General and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley talks while President Donald Trump listens at the Veteran's of Foreign Wars national convention Tuesday, July 24, 2018, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

ST. CHARLES • In 2016, Donald Trump made the presidential election in Missouri a referendum on Hillary Clinton.

The next 13 weeks before this year’s Senate election in the Show Me State, it's at least partially a referendum on Trump, with the Senate race between Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican challenger Josh Hawley one of the nation's most-watched proxy fights of 2018.

Hawley, the state’s attorney general, has fully embraced the president and will try to make McCaskill – and her ties to what Trump calls the Washington “swamp” - the issue. In tweets Tuesday and Wednesday by the president indicated he, or surrogates, are likely to invest a lot of time and energy to help get Hawley elected. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both appeared with Hawley in the state last month, and Trump advisers say the White House will pay a lot of attention to Missouri before the election.

“Congratulations to Josh Hawley on your big Senate Primary win in Missouri,” Trump tweeted after Hawley got just under 60 percent of the vote in an 11-person Republican primary field Tuesday. “I look forward to working with you toward a big win in November. We need you in Washington!”

Hours later, in an early morning call with reporters, McCaskill, D-Mo., tried to portray her November opponent as a no-questions-asked supporter of Trump, even when the president pushes policies, like trade tariffs, that she said have hurt Missouri agriculture and businesses.

“I think Josh Hawley is going to stress how close he is to the president on everything, and I am going to stress how independent I am from parties, and from group think, and how independent I am because I am always fighting for what I think would be best for Missouri,” McCaskill said.

Hawley told reporters after a St. Charles campaign rally Wednesday that "it's a referendum on her." 

McCaskill "is the one who has the job," he said. "She is a multi-term incumbent. She’s asking to get hired again. So she needs to come and defend her record.”

Hawley said he spoke with President Trump following his primary victory Tuesday night.

“He’s just excited about the results here in Missouri. He knows how critical Missouri is, that this is a state that is vital to holding control of the Senate for Republicans, and you know, this is an important Senate race. I don’t think there’s any more important Senate race in the country.”

“We would hope that he would come (to Missouri) as often as he’s able,” Hawley said.

Trump seems to relish the challenge, tweeting Wednesday that Republicans are winning in most places where he’s endorsed, including in a disputed Ohio special election Tuesday night in a race that could go to a recount.

Even if that narrow win holds up for the Republican, critics will see it as  illustrative of Trump’s diminished appeal, because it came in a district that has been comfortably in Republican hands since Ronald Reagan was president. But Trump treated it Wednesday as a win is a win, and he dismissed talk of a “blue wave” favoring Democrats across the country.

“As long as I campaign and/or support Senate and House candidates (within reason) they will win!” the president tweeted. “I LOVE the people, & they certainly seem to like the job I’m doing. If I find time between China, Iran, the economy and much more, which I must, we will have a giant Red Wave!”

McCaskill said she saw signs of another-colored wave in Missouri Tuesday.

She dwelled on the fact that more than 605,000 Democrats voted in her primary, even though she had only token opposition, which was more than twice the number that voted in her 2012 primary, and nearly twice as many as voted in 2006. Republican turnout of just north of 663,000 was also up, but slightly, from 2012, although that was a more highly contested race.

McCaskill supporters were pushing the fact that Hawley received less than 60 percent of the vote, but two of his primary opponents raised and spent relatively substantial amounts of money criticizing Hawley, and McCaskill’s primary opponents didn’t.

Still, McCaskill said Democratic turnout, plus the 2-1 turndown of a right-to-work proposition on the ballot, should be seen as bullish news for her side.

“People around Missouri are going to take notice of it,” she said.

In 2016, Trump was able to capitalize on Clinton’s low approval ratings in states like Missouri with an aggressive, and sometimes very personal, attack on the Democratic presidential candidate’s positions and character.

In a low-road 2016 presidential debate between Clinton and Trump in St. Louis, then-candidate Trump called Clinton “the devil,” and declared: ““Honest Abe never lied. That’s a big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you. That’s a big, big difference.”

Whether surrogate Trump goes down that same road with McCaskill in 2018 may only be answered in his Twitter feed. But the president has already tweeted critically of McCaskill’s use of a private plane to campaign, a subtle dig at her wealth and that of her husband, Joseph, from a president who has boasted about his own wealth.

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

Jack Suntrup is a reporter at the Post-Dispatch