Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is courting former White House strategist Steve Bannon as he moves forward with his bid to challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, according to sources close to both men.
Hawley is the top Republican recruit considering a run against McCaskill, a Democrat, in 2018.
Hawley and Bannon spoke after the Breitbart executive played a role in helping controversial candidate Roy Moore win the Alabama primary for Senate last month. Moore’s decisive defeat of incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, who had been backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, drove speculation that Bannon could wade into other Republican primaries, including in Missouri.
Hawley and Bannon spoke on the phone last week for an “introductory conversation” about “who he is, his vision,” according to a Missouri Republican who is close to Hawley. A source close to Bannon confirmed that account of the call.
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“They have some mutual friends ... donors who know both of them,” the Republican close to Hawley said. The call was meant to assure Bannon that “Josh is a good conservative” and “one of us,” rather than an establishment candidate.
Hawley’s spokesman said in an email that “Josh works hard to stay in touch with conservative leaders in Missouri and across the country.”
The first-term attorney general has faced encouragement to run from the state’s former GOP senators, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence as Republicans look to capture the Missouri seat next year in a race that could decide control of the Senate.
But Hawley also has faced pressure from conservatives in Missouri after his most vocal political backer, former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth, wrote an op-ed blasting President Donald Trump and urging fellow Republicans to cut ties with the president. Hawley also skipped attending Trump’s speech in Missouri in late August because of a previously scheduled family vacation.
Hawley has refused to comment on Danforth’s criticism of the president. Former Missouri Republican chair and CNN contributor Ed Martin has repeatedly said Hawley should not run against McCaskill if he won’t denounce Danforth.
“I have no comment at this point except to note that no Missouri Republican will win if he does not embrace the America First policies that are so clearly at the heart of our state’s voters’ concerns. To run from Trump or run as a Swamp candidate is a losing path,” said Martin, who last month presented an award to Bannon in St. Louis in his role as president of the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles.
Martin said he and Bannon are friends and speak or text a few times a day. Martin would not rule out his own run for Senate in Missouri to The Kansas City Star.
“I am watching the field because we MUST beat Claire and support the Americans First agenda,” he said in an email.
The same Republican source that said Hawley and Bannon had conversed also said Martin has “been trying to court Bannon’s favor” for a possible Senate run.
“I think Ed’s been trying to gin it up. They’re friends. They’re both Trumpers, nationalists. ‘Let’s blow things up.’ Josh is a little more cerebral. ... He chooses his words,” the Republican said.
In addition to Martin, declared candidates, such as Kansas City’s Austin Petersen, have tried to portray Hawley as the establishment pick ahead of the primary. And political newcomer Courtland Sykes, a self-described Bannon admirer, launched a campaign last month with a promise to support Trump’s agenda.
Meira Bernstein, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Democratic Party who is authorized to speak for McCaskill’s campaign, said in an email that “it’s clear by his efforts to woo Bannon that Hawley is worried about his chances in an increasingly crowded primary.”
She also pushed back on the notion that Hawley isn’t an establishment candidate.
“It’s unbelievable Josh Hawley is trying to convince Steve Bannon that he isn’t an establishment candidate, when Hawley has refused to denounce his mentor Jack Danforth’s criticism of President Trump and just recently filed a joint fundraising committee with the DC Republican establishment. Missourians aren’t the only ones Hawley is trying to mislead,” she said.
Danforth, who represented Missouri in the Senate for two decades and led the effort to recruit Hawley to the race, said he was unaware of any communications between Hawley and Bannon.
“I hope he doesn’t weigh in on behalf of Hawley. This is news to me,” Danforth said in a phone call.
“I can’t imagine that Hawley would have anything in common with Bannon. Hawley has a very broad appeal, but that that’s the first I’ve heard of that.”
Danforth said it would actually help Hawley if Bannon waded into the race to support another candidate because it would allow Hawley to draw a sharp contrast and “Josh wouldn’t even have to try” in that race.
“Ed Martin supported by Steve Bannon? A bonanza,” Danforth said.