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President Trump arrives at Lambert

Senate candidate Josh Hawley talks with President Trump at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, after his arrival on Air Force 1. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

Muddled election outcomes in Kansas and Ohio this week sent a clear message: Blind loyalty to President Donald Trump isn’t a path to victory for Republican candidates. It’s a message that Missouri GOP Senate nominee Josh Hawley should heed.

Identification with Trump might work well with the energized base that typically dominates primary elections, but in the general elections, voters will be looking for independent thinkers, not blindly loyal Trump supporters.

In a bright-red Ohio congressional district that should be an easy win for any Republican, GOP candidate Troy Balderson had a razor-thin lead over Democrat Danny O’Connor in Tuesday’s special election, which was still too close to call, greatly underperforming expectations after making alliance with Trump a focal point of his campaign. In Kansas, Republican establishment types are panicking that the possible gubernatorial nomination (a recount is pending) of controversial Trump acolyte Kris Kobach will make it difficult to hold the seat in November.

“If Kobach is the nominee, Republicans face an uphill battle,” one frustrated Republican operative told The Washington Post.

Trump’s coattails have always been iffy. Though Trump won Missouri in 2016 by almost 20 percentage points, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., on the same ballot, won by less than 3 points. Trump’s performance as a kingmaker since taking office has been even worse. In Alabama’s U.S. Senate race last year, Trump’s backing of alleged pedophile Roy Moore was both shameful and ineffective; Moore lost, giving Alabama its first Democratic senator in two decades.

In dozens of special legislative elections across the country, solid-Republican districts that Trump won in 2016 have since flipped to Democrats. They include a Missouri House seat in Jefferson County in February, which Democrat Mike Revis won over a Republican whose Twitter feed constantly sang Trump’s praises.

Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general, is challenging Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of Capitol Hill’s most vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Despite ample room to demonstrate his independence from Trump, Hawley hasn’t risked it. Even after Trump’s appalling supplication to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, Hawley’s campaign issued a head-scratching statement lauding Trump for “being forceful with Russia.”

Hawley personally lauded Trump on a Kansas City stage recently for having “the guts to stand up to our enemies overseas” — this for a president who has alienated allies and close trading partners to the detriment of Missouri farmers. Even the risk-averse Blunt has occasionally managed to clear his throat and say something mildly disapproving at the scandals, lies and missteps surrounding Trump.

If Hawley has ever dared demonstrate even that mild separation from this president, we can’t find any record of it. If the need for political courage doesn’t move Hawley, maybe the need for political survival will. Look to Ohio. Look to Kansas. Voters want their representatives to exercise independent judgment, which means publicly disagreeing with Trump when he is wrong.