- The Washington Times - Friday, July 8, 2022

Sen. Josh Hawley is a rising Republican star who, after 3½ years in Washington, is already seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2024. But his aggressive trajectory has also made him a target for criticism from lawmakers in both parties, including within his Missouri delegation.

Mr. Hawley, 42, has carved out a unique political pathway, tapping into the populist frustrations of the country, such as taking on Big Tech censorship of conservatives while bringing a strong intellectual skill set from his academic and legal backgrounds. 

The telegenic lawmaker is a frequent guest on Fox News, where he provides prime-time conservative commentary on politics, legislation and the judicial branch. He is also a prodigious fundraiser and makes regular appearances at the nation’s top conservative conferences. 

Political analysts say Mr. Hawley is clearly laying the groundwork for a 2024 presidential run, although he denies that’s his plan. Fellow Republican lawmakers say Mr. Hawley could be poised for higher office. 

He‘s a bright, upcoming star for the Republican Party,” said Sen. Roger Marshall, Kansas Republican. “He’s young and has a long career ahead of him. There’s lots of people up here that are moving up.”

Mr. Hawley has stirred grumbling from some Republicans for what they say are outward personal ambitions manifesting on the national stage, which appear to have started soon after he won his first election to statewide office four years ago.

A former Republican congressional aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said Mr. Hawley‘s rise belies his first political campaign for state attorney general, in which he focused on attacking “career politicians just climbing the ladder.” 

The disgruntled aide said Mr. Hawley‘s ambitions inspired him to give his one and only political donation to Mr. Hawley‘s 2018 Senate primary challenger.

“A lot of Hawley‘s [first] campaign was that he was not going to ladder climb and that ladder climbers were bad. Then, during his first term as attorney general, he runs for the Senate,” the aide said. “He‘s always come across as a highly ambitious guy.”

Mr. Hawley‘s ambitions also have rankled members of the Missouri delegation serving with him in Congress. 

In private conversations, one Republican House member from Missouri accused Mr. Hawley of being absent in the state. The senator denies the accusation. 

Several Missouri lawmakers told The Washington Times that the only two members who don’t show up to the delegation luncheons are Mr. Hawley and Rep. Cori Bush, a high-profile Democrat in the far-left “Squad.” 

Rep. Jason Smith, a Missouri Republican, said attendance at the luncheons is a good indicator of who is prioritizing local issues and state issues over national issues.

“I’ve never seen him there,” Mr. Smith said. “Claire McCaskill went. [Sen.] Roy Blunt goes. Cori Bush doesn’t. Everyone else does.”

Mr. Hawley won his Senate seat in 2018 by ousting two-term Democrat Claire McCaskill. Before Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff’s victory last year, Mr. Hawley was the youngest member of the Senate.

Mr. Hawley is an above-average Senate fundraiser. He is not up for reelection until 2024, but his campaign committee has raised $9.2 million in this election cycle, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit campaign finance tracking group.

Mr. Hawley‘s ambitions were noticeable early, according to those who knew him in his undergraduate years.

David Kennedy, Mr. Hawley‘s former mentor at Stanford University, called his former protege one of the most intellectually gifted students he had in 50 years of teaching.

“I wasn’t alone in identifying him as somebody who was marked for some brilliant, interesting role,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Democrats also say Mr. Hawley does not participate in delegation activities.

Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, one of two Democrats in the Missouri delegation, said he has seen Mr. Hawley only once since he was elected, though he has long had a close relationship with his retiring Senate counterpart, Mr. Blunt.

“I don’t see him, period. I hear things and read things about him, but I don’t know him,” Mr. Cleaver said.

Rep. Billy Long, who once accused Mr. Hawley of snubbing him out of a Senate endorsement, said the senator tends to work independently from the rest of the delegation.

“I like Josh a lot, but he has always kind of done his own thing,” Mr. Long said. “We don’t see him at the Missouri luncheons or in the state a lot. That’s the way it’s always been.”

When The Times encountered Mr. Hawley at the Capitol and asked about the criticism, he responded by saying he frequently goes back to Missouri and that he and his team are in the state “all the time.”

The Hawley team pointed to a July 2021 poll by St. Louis University and YouGov that showed Missouri voters gave Mr. Hawley a 52% approval rating, higher than every other elected official.

“There’s a reason Josh is the most popular elected official in the state,” said Hawley spokesperson Abigail Marone. “He doesn’t spend his time at D.C. luncheons. He delivers. This year alone, our office has delivered results on over 1,000 cases for constituents needing help. Nobody does it better. And since he’s been in office, he’s done nearly 1,000 interviews with Missouri press.”

Ms. Marone said Mr. Cleaver should check his own record before casting aspersions on Mr. Hawley.

“Congressman Cleaver has been a deep disappointment — relentlessly partisan and AWOL on the issues that matter most to his constituents,” she said. “When Josh took on the scumbag absentee landlords in Kansas City preying on the most vulnerable, Cleaver wouldn’t lift a finger to help despite repeated outreach. But he’s happy to hobnob with Washington lobbyists.” 

Mr. Cleaver’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Jeremy Walling, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University, said Mr. Hawley has formed his own identity in Congress as an individualist rather than part of a collective group.

“With the Missouri House delegation, these people are formed in their area, they’re formed in the region, and people know them,” Mr. Walling said. “With Hawley, it kind of feels like, who knows him? He kind of just appeared sort of fully formed as someone that’s ready to ascend the ladder, and he‘s ascending the ladder.”

Mr. Hawley has denied several times that he is mulling a presidential run in the coming years and insists he is keeping his focus on the Senate.

Mr. Blunt, who is retiring from the Senate this year, said he expects his counterpart to remain a contender in the national political sphere for the foreseeable future.

“He’s really a smart guy,” Mr. Blunt said. “He’s carved out an interesting place in the national debate, and I think he’s going to be in that debate for a long time, and who knows where that takes him.”

Mr. Hawley has differentiated himself from other lawmakers. He has leaned into the conservative concerns of Big Tech censorship, pushed bills targeting Democrats’ “woke agenda” and consistently opposed all of President Biden’s Cabinet nominees.

He became a prime target for Democrats and “Never Trumpers” after he objected to the 2020 presidential election results. He was photographed raising a fist in support of attendees at President Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally. Hundreds of those rallygoers stormed the U.S. Capitol afterward. 

Mr. Walling said the riot was a “misstep” for Mr. Hawley‘s political career but is unlikely to tarnish him among his conservative base if he makes a play for higher office one day.

“No one’s talking about that anymore,” Mr. Walling said. “That’s the kind of thing that’s absolutely campaign fodder in a primary or in the general election, but I haven’t heard anyone speak of that in months.”

Mr. Hawley was born in Arkansas and grew up in Lexington, Missouri, outside of Kansas City.

He attended Stanford University as an undergraduate history major and taught a year in London at St. Paul’s School, an all-boys private institution.

When Mr. Hawley returned to the U.S., he attended Yale Law School and later clerked in the Supreme Court for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The senator has often attacked coastal elites for being out of touch with America’s “flyover country.” His critics say he has caught “Potomac fever,” putting his sole focus on Washington power.

Those critics make much of Mr. Hawley‘s $1.3 million house in Northern Virginia, though the senator also maintains a residence in Ozark, Missouri.

Mr. Kennedy, the Stanford professor, said Mr. Hawley‘s calculated ambition mirrors the road maps of past presidents.

“The idea that Josh or others are ambitious is perfectly normal politics,” Mr. Kennedy said. “There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. It’s what you do with the ambition that matters.”

Mr. Hawley, like most other Republicans who may be eyeing a 2024 White House run, is barely making a dent in early presidential polling, which mostly shows Mr. Trump crushing the field by double digits. 

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, Mr. Hawley delivered a fiery speech to the base but tied with former Vice President Mike Pence at 1% among potential Republican presidential primary candidates in a straw poll that excluded Mr. Trump. 

In that poll, Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, won 3%, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump Jr. each won 6%, and many other candidates had low single-digit support. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the clear favorite with 61% in a Trump-less lineup.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misreported the amount of money raised by the Hawley campaign this election cycle. He has raised $9.2 million.

• Mica Soellner can be reached at msoellner@washingtontimes.com.

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