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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – For nearly every minute of Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s political career, he’s been a man on the rise.
He took the Missouri GOP by storm half a decade ago, impressing big donors and grassroots supporters alike with a fresh face and reputation as a lawyer who helped Hobby Lobby win a big religious liberty case.
He ran for attorney general in 2016, trounced his more experienced opponents, and within a year, party bigwigs were encouraging a run for Senate.
He beat a two-term Democratic incumbent by six points, moved to Washington, and immediately made a splash blending traditional conservative rhetoric on issues like abortion and law enforcement with maverick calls to break up Big Tech and nationalize company payrolls amid the pandemic.
Two weeks ago, he took his boldest step yet toward that inheritance by leading an effort to throw out electoral votes from states that were pivotal in Trump's loss. And with that, the conversation changed.
At the same time as Hawley and a few other Republicans were objecting to acceptance of the Electoral College results, citing unfounded claims of voter fraud and other irregularities, a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol on a rampage that left five dead and dozens injured.
After the riot and as other Republicans rescinded their objections before the Electoral College vote, Hawley continued – and people began pointing fingers at him anew.
Today I have the opportunity and the obligation to speak for my constituents and to object during the electoral college certification. I look forward to the debate
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) January 6, 2021
First, it was the usual critics – “Sen. Josh Hawley has blood on his hands,” the Kansas City Star editorial board blared – but then the barbs started coming from fellow Senate Republicans. The Wall Street Journal reported Hawley had become a “pariah” in his own caucus.
The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC, promised to run attack ads against him until he resigns. Some of Hawley's biggest donors and supporters in Missouri started turning on him.
Hawley was steadfast.
“I will never apologize for giving voice to the millions of Missourians and Americans who have concerns about the integrity of our elections,” he said in a statement. “That’s my job, and I will keep doing it.”
Amid the cascade of criticism, a question emerged that previously would have sounded absurd for the rising star: Is Josh Hawley’s political career in trouble?
Former Sen. Danforth: But for him, the riot wouldn't have happened
One thing is for sure: Hawley’s lost some friends.
Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, a man once hailed as “the father of the modern Missouri Republican Party,” was in the vanguard backing Hawley’s runs for attorney general and U.S. Senate.
In a 2017 letter urging Hawley to run for Senate, he and other prominent Republicans told him he was someone with “the ability to be a leading voice for the constitutional order, not only in Missouri but nationally” and a badly needed antidote to “hyper-partisanship.”
Last week, Danforth told the Associated Press that supporting Hawley “was the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
“He has consciously appealed to the worst,” Danforth said. “He has attempted to drive us apart and he has undermined public belief in our democracy.”
He later told the Star that “but for (Hawley),” the riot wouldn’t have happened.
Other condemnation followed.
Sam Fox, a major Republican fundraiser who helped clear the GOP field for Hawley’s U.S. Senate run, told the Missouri Independent he’s cutting off the spigot.
“Sen. Hawley engaged in an act of reckless pandering,” he said in a statement. “He helped put the country on a path that has ended in five deaths and in disgrace for himself and for the nation. Supporting Hawley when he ran for the Senate in 2018 was my mistake. He can certainly forget about any support from me again.”
David Humphreys, who gave millions of dollars to support Hawley’s campaigns, also denounced him in a statement to the Independent, describing him as a “political opportunist willing to subvert the Constitution and the ideals of the nation he swore to uphold.”
Humphreys recommended the Senate punish Hawley with a formal rebuke known as censure.
Though rare, formal consequences may be coming.
Democrats set to control the Senate later this month are reportedly considering censure of Hawley and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, another objection ringleader, if they don’t heed calls to resign.
It’s not clear how many Republicans would join the effort, but some have already delivered their own public rebukes.
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told NPR that Hawley “was doing something that was really dumbass” in objecting to electoral votes, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said objectors “will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy.”
In Missouri, many in his base stand by him
Beltway denizens and big donors aren’t the only ones with a say in Hawley’s future, however.
In conservative southwest Missouri, some supporters see the senator’s actions in a very different light.
Arthur Hodge, a retired teacher in Springfield, said he felt Hawley really was standing up for him and demanding answers to questions about the election dismissed by courts and the news media. (Trump and his allies filed more than 60 court challenges to the election results. All but one were completely rejected by judges and justices in states across the nation.)
“He did what he felt was right in his heart because we know there were irregularities, or at least some of us do,” Hodge said.
Jamie Jenkins, a heavy truck parts salesman in Joplin, felt much the same way.
“What Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley did isn’t sedition, it’s pointing out there’s something wrong,” he said. “Half the country doesn’t believe the election results.”
That may be a stretch, but multiple surveys since the election have suggested a majority of Republicans don’t trust the results. In Missouri, an early December poll of likely Republican voters found 73% of them believed Trump was the real winner, despite evidence to the contrary.
County party chairs, focal points of grassroots organizing in the state, offered similar perspectives.
"Somebody needed to stand up,” Christian County GOP Chairman Walt Martens said. “We’ve got to have it so every vote counts, but fraudulent votes don’t.”
Supporters also dismissed the allegations by Danforth and others that Hawley’s objection provoked the riots.
“That is the most silly thing I’ve ever heard,” Jenkins said. “Did he tell these people that ‘We’re going to bash in the windows and break into the Capitol?’ No, he didn’t.”
They also doubted the criticism would hurt Hawley long term.
“In fact,” Martens said, “he might even gain some votes.”
Dane Roaseau, the Lawrence County GOP chairman, said Hawley showed potential for higher office.
“There’s a lot that could happen in four years,” he said, “but he’s shown a lot of good characteristics. He’s not afraid of folks going after him just because they have a disagreement on policy.”
2024? 2028? 'I don’t think his career is over'
Whether such support could propel Hawley to the White House, the Republican nomination, or even another term in the Senate remains to be seen.
Springfield businessman Gordon Kinne, a member of the Republican National Committee, has heard all sides of the debate over the riots. In his mind, Jan. 6 was bad for Hawley, but not fatal.
“It probably rules out 2024 (for president), and in that case, probably 2028,” he said. “But I don’t think his career is over.”
Losing Danforth, Fox and Humphreys makes for bad headlines, he said, but the only way it will really hurt is if they back another candidate to run against him, a tough sell in Trump-loving Missouri.
“I think he’ll continue to be a popular senator with his base,” Kinne said.
John Hancock, a former state GOP chairman, offered a similar outlook.
“Nobody is defined by one week of their lives,” he said. “Josh is very bright, very capable, and I think he’s got a lot to contribute to the U.S. Senate and the state of Missouri.”
He said Hawley’s chances in a 2024 run for the presidency would be “greater than zero,” but with years to go before the campaigns start, he said it’s probably more likely the eventual nominee is someone no one’s even thinking about right now.
Others are more bullish.
Gregg Keller, who has worked on multiple GOP presidential campaigns and advised Hawley's Senate run, said that not only will Hawley remain a well-liked senator at home, he’ll be a top-tier candidate in the 2024 GOP presidential primary if no Trumps are on the ballot.
“He’s a great political athlete – great ésumé, great on camera, young, attractive – and he does the two things Republicans want to see,” Keller said. “No. 1, he represents their views, and No. 2, he’s shown he’s absolutely fearless when it comes to the consequences of their views.”
That steadfast stand on the election results could indeed help in early states like Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and one of the state’s representatives on the RNC, said if Hawley did run, he would probably find grateful supporters.
“A lot of people question the legitimacy of the vote count in six or seven swing states,” he said. “He had every right to do that, and the people that are calling even for his ouster to demonize him, that's ridiculous.”
Still, Hawley is likely to face headwinds based on his actions on Jan. 6.
“Iowa Republicans and Iowa voters are smart, and they're engaged,” said Luke Martz, an Iowa operative who worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “Just because they voted for Trump doesn't mean that they're supportive of insurrection, nor does it mean that they're supportive of contesting the election results.”
All of Iowa’s Republican members of Congress voted against the objections raised to the Electoral College count, including U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, who are deeply influential within the party.
Ernst told reporters at a recent town hall that “history will not look kindly upon those that abdicated their constitutional authorities” during that vote.
It takes more than one state to win the nomination, however, and the landscape moving forward may depend less on Hawley and more on the GOP as a whole.
“The big question is what kind of Republican Party emerges from this presidency,” said Dan Ponder, a political scientist at Drury University in Springfield.
If the party backs away from Trump, Ponder said, Hawley could find himself in an uphill battle for national success.
Indeed, polling suggests Hawley’s recent behavior has him underwater even among Republicans.
But as history has shown polls can miss the mark.
“And if he emerges as the darling of the new Trump Party in the next four years,” Ponder said, “all sins may be forgiven.”
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Josh Hawley was a Republican rising star before Capitol riot; now what