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WASHINGTON • July could be both the hottest month on the thermometer and the sultriest month of 2017 in Missouri politics.

A cavalcade of decisions and revelations in coming weeks will greatly shape the 2018 elections, which will put Missouri squarely at the center of the battle for control of Congress.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is seeking re-election, and the prospect of her facing a top Missouri Republican — U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, of Ballwin, or Attorney General Josh Hawley — has already attracted streams of negative campaign advertising from outside, “dark money” groups.

Events this July will define the early contours of that race.

“Missouri is going to get a huge amount of attention because this is going to be a marquee matchup for the Democrats,” said David Robertson, professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Referring to the fact that 10 Democratic senators, including McCaskill, face re-election in states won by President Donald Trump, Robertson continued: “The Democrats need to hold on to all the seats they have.

“This is a very vulnerable seat to a strong Republican,” Robertson said. “Either Hawley or Ann Wagner would be seen as pretty strong candidates. … So this is going to get a whole lot of coverage in the media and a whole lot of money, certainly an unprecedented amount of money for a Missouri Senate race.”

Hawley, 37, the first-term attorney general, is being coaxed to run by leading Republicans, including former Sen. John Danforth, who said he likes and respects Wagner but sees in Hawley a fresh Republican who could defeat McCaskill, who will be 64 later this month.

Wagner, 54, is expected to announce her intentions soon. The former Missouri and national Republican Party official has been robustly raising money. She has developed a strong, national fundraising network and political chits from key members of Congress from raising money and campaigning for them.

The dollar primary

A lot of focus will be on second-quarter fundraising reports, which will be released early in July.

Wagner’s campaign account, especially, will be notable, given that major GOP fundraiser Sam Fox has urged donors to hold off until Hawley decides whether he will run. If Wagner shows a strong second-quarter bottom line, it will be a barometer of her independent fundraising strength in a race that could, with outside “dark money” pouring in, easily exceed $100 million in total spending.

But Hawley also has national notoriety as a young, up-and-coming conservative. He told the Post-Dispatch in late June that “I am working as hard as I can at the job that I was elected to do … That’s where all my focus is.”

McCaskill, who has said she expects to need at least $30 million just for her campaign, knows either Hawley or Wagner would be a serious challenger. (Democratic opposition researchers have also been following Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, in anticipation that she could run for the Senate.)

“I will certainly take them seriously,” McCaskill told the Post-Dispatch. “And I look forward to debating them and hopefully keeping it on the issues, and telling any groups that are out there that are helping me to not engage in this kind of mudslinging that is so distorted and unfair.”

Indeed, groups aligned with political operatives David Brock on the left and Karl Rove on the right have already begun running attack ads or hiring opposition researchers to dig and dish. Given the fact that Missouri’s Senate race could be, as Robertson said, a 2018 marquee, their spending is almost certain to dwarf the almost $45 million spent in Sen. Roy Blunt’s narrow win over former Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander last year.

That win by the Republican Blunt, as important as it was in the GOP’s retention of the Senate, was overshadowed by Trump’s big win in Missouri, and by the GOP sweep of the rest of the statewide ticket, led by Gov. Eric Greitens.

A Show-Me election

Next year, the Senate race will be top shelf in Show-Me country. And these current indicators show how it could play out:

• McCaskill has begun a rural-first strategy. She already has had numerous town halls in rural communities and is planning another 10 for the July Fourth recess. She says they’re valuable listening posts on the issues. But they also serve a multilayered political purpose for the two-term senator.

First, they help her lasso support in rural areas where she and other statewide Democrats often lag — not necessarily to win counties, but to narrow the GOP advantage enough that the Democrats’ traditional strength in urban Missouri is not eroded as severely.

“These are communities that typically do not vote for me and I need to understand and listen,” McCaskill said. “I am working for everybody, even if they don’t vote for me. I owe them my time and I owe them my respect.”

Robertson said that this is a classic McCaskill move, and a strategy that might have helped Hillary Clinton win the White House in 2016 had she employed it.

McCaskill’s “campaigns have included rural Missouri in a way that really aims at as much as anything at minimizing her losses in that part of the state,” Robertson said. “That is the kind of strategy that might have helped Hillary Clinton in states like Michigan, maybe Wisconsin.”

• By having town halls, McCaskill is trying to not-so-subtly make connectivity to voters and authenticity an issue for any Republican challenger. Wagner, for instance, has been the subject of protests — some of which she says has included things like dead-body drawings in her driveway — for not holding town hall meetings. Wagner says she is willing to meet with any constituent in her district offices, but her opponents have kept a steady online campaign against her for not meeting with voters.

• A development in Nevada in the wake of the Senate’s health care bill struggles could be a precursor to Missouri and other states. A political action committee affiliated with Trump bought ads in Nevada attacking Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican who is up for re-election next year in a Democratic-trending state, for expressing doubts about the GOP bill. The ads compared Heller with Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi, a supreme insult in Republican primary politics, and they were pulled after protests from other Republicans.

Will Trump’s PAC take sides in GOP primaries next year? That could be an important factor in a potential Senate Republican primary in Missouri, for reasons unique to the state.

While Hawley has strong backing from the Tea Party wing that propelled Trump to a 19-point blowout over Clinton in Missouri, Wagner has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the president. She twice backed away from Trump during the 2016 election, in particular denouncing him after a tape of Trump speaking in vulgar terms about women surfaced a month before the election.

But she supported him in the end, and since Trump’s inauguration, Wagner has been an enthusiastic Trump backer. She has had several high-profile visits to the White House, and she has focused on issues, like financial regulatory reform, that attracted a lot of Trump supporters. Wagner has said her criticism of Trump in 2016 was her characteristically speaking her mind.

But what if Trump, who has shown a big appetite for mixing it up politically even inside his own party, decides to take sides in a Missouri Senate primary? Will Wagner’s comments about him in 2016 come back around?

• How other dominoes fall in coming weeks in area U.S. House races could have a huge effect on the region’s politics next year. Several Democrats, including three first-time candidates 35 or under, are expected to announce they will run for Wagner’s 2nd District seat in July or soon thereafter. That could create more robust competition in a district Wagner has three times won handily, potentially boosting turnout in the suburbs of St. Louis next year.

National barometer

A Wagner-Hawley Senate primary in 2018 would be a microcosm of competing strains in the GOP nationally, a textbook case for political scientists.

Hawley represents the insurgent strain of outsiders that helped elect Trump. As a former state and national party leader, Wagner helped stack the building blocks that have revitalized the Republican Party, both in Missouri and nationally, since Ronald Reagan.

The question hanging over Republicans is whether the prospects of a tough primary battle helps or hurts the party’s chance to knock off McCaskill, whom many Republicans think got a lucky break in 2012 with the meltdown of her opponent, former Rep. Todd Akin.

“A Hawley-against-Wagner primary could have bad consequences if it divides the party very much,” Robertson said.

National Republicans are playing wait-and-see on the prospect of a GOP primary. The National Republican Senatorial Committee does not take sides in primaries. But top Republicans took note of Trump’s PAC attack on Heller, and acknowledge it could be a wild card if there is a Senate primary in Missouri next year.

No matter who becomes their nominee, Republicans are preparing to attack McCaskill as an opponent of Trump’s agenda and an opportunist when it suits her political needs.

McCaskill, who frequently portrays herself as a moderate and who has shown a willingness to work with Republicans on some issues, made news recently by praising Trump’s administrative rollback of an Obama-era “waters of the USA” environmental initiative.

But Republicans pointed out that McCaskill on at least four occasions had cast votes that kept that program alive.

“It’s no secret Missouri is a top pickup opportunity,” said NRSC spokesman Michael McAdams. He said the GOP would attack McCaskill’s “liberal record and willingness to obstruct President Trump’s agenda.”

A second question is how Hawley sees the next 16 months in the context of his ambitions.

With Blunt ensconced in the Senate for another four years and showing no signs of slowing down, and with Greitens just starting his term in office, the Senate seat now held by McCaskill is the most direct and immediate step up for both Wagner and Hawley.

Even before Hawley was elected in November, Wagner was always in the conversation about McCaskill’s challenger in 2018. When he won the attorney generalship, Hawley immediately became a wild-card in that conversation, even more with the actions of Danforth and Fox.

Hawley “is relatively young and has won a statewide election in Missouri, which Ann Wagner has not done,” Robertson said. “So that is part of the attraction. He is seen as a very up-and-coming conservative in the Republican Party, seen as somebody who can attract a lot of money.”

Wagner “is one of the architects of the strengthening of the Republican base and the strengthening of the Republican Party in this state since the 1980s,” Robertson said. “She has an awful lot of contacts and, I would think commitments, around the state. So she would be a formidable candidate, both in a primary and in the general election.”

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