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Donors And Colleagues Blast Missouri's Hawley For Challenging The Election, But His Loyalists Still Love Him

Senator Josh Hawley wears a mask on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Andrew Harnik/AP
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., walks into the House chamber before a joint session of the House and Senate convenes to count the electoral votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley is facing mounting scrutiny after challenging the election results, but the Missouri Republican created his political brand around defiance to the mainstream.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley built a rocket-ship political career with a proud embrace of Trumpism and defiant nose-thumbing to anybody who had a problem with that.

When the Republican lawmaker made his way to the U.S. Capitol last week to challenge the outcome of the presidential election, he passed by a group of Trump supporters. He raised an energetic fist in the air. The crowd cheered.

Hours later, pro-Trump extremists breached the U.S. Capitol while Hawley and other lawmakers took cover. Ultimately, five people died.

The backlash against Hawley was sharp. His political mentor, former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, now says supporting Hawley was the worst mistake of his life. Top donors say they regret giving him the money to run for office. One told the Missouri Independent that Hawley is a political opportunist who helped incite the riot that overran the home of Congress.

But in a political party where polls show the majority of Republicans don’t trust the 2020 election results, Hawley still finds loyal supporters who admire how he refuses to retreat.

Jackson, Caldwell and Andrew counties GOP chairs told KCUR Hawley still has their backing and the support from a wide range of conservatives.

“Grassroots doesn’t care about donors,” said Jean Evans, the former executive director of the Missouri state Republican Party. “I mean, that’s not how they make their decisions.”

Senate Television
In this image from video, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks as the Senate reconvenes to debate the objection to confirm the Electoral College Vote from Arizona, after protesters stormed into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

“He’s representing us”

Mary Potter, a retired teacher and Blue Springs city councilmember, volunteered on his U.S. Senate campaign. Potter said the Fox News Channel should have done a better job in the hours after the insurrection representing Hawley’s viewpoint. She was dismayed to learn that Simon & Schuster canceled Hawley’s book deal about big tech companies.

“We need to get a different publisher if they judge everything on one situation,” Potter said. “Most of his constituents in Missouri feel the same way I do. He’s representing us. He doesn’t have to represent them.”

Caldwell County GOP Chair Richard Lee wasn’t shocked by the insurrection at the nation’s Capitol. While he condemns the violence, he said it was the result of an election he contends — without evidence — turned on fraudulent results.

“What shocked me the most is that it came as a surprise to people. It’s been coming for a long time,” Lee said. “When people don't have faith in your election, things like this happened.”

Lee and three other Republicans active in county-level Republican organizing told KCUR they don’t blame Hawley for the violence, and they think the news media stoked an unfair backlash against him.

As far as Andrew County GOP chairman Mark Schneider is concerned, media outlets like The New York Times, NPR and CBS are just “the public relations arm of the Democratic Party.”

He said media coverage pressured top Republican donors to abandon Hawley.

“It’s a lot of media hype being dumped on Hawley that is undeserved,” Schneider is said.

Even among Republicans who don’t buy into election conspiracies, Hawley still has some supporters, like Missouri Republican state committee member Taunia Allen Mason. She said Hawley wasn’t representing her voice when he objected to certifying the Electoral College votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania.

“Sometimes when bad things happen, you just don’t drop and run,” Mason said. “Sometimes you just got to stick in there. You got to stay there for the long haul.”

The ‘responsibility’ of leadership

Nationally, only a quarter of Republicans trust the 2020 election results, according to a December survey by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist.

“Somebody has to stand up here. You have (millions of) Americans who feel disenfranchised, who feel like their vote doesn’t matter,” Hawley told Fox News in December. His office didn’t respond to a KCUR request for comment.

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. (For a run-down of election misinformation, check out The New York Times fact-checking guide.) Evans said “it’s a recipe for trouble” when millions believe the lie that the election was stolen. However, she still supports Hawley even while disagreeing with his efforts to overturn the election.

”All these people from Missouri are calling him and saying, ‘This is how we feel. We want you to do this,’” Evans said. “He was responding to constituents.”

Evans was fielding some of those same calls back in December as the executive director of the state GOP. The tone of the voicemails got increasingly disturbing — someone called asking for a military coup. Evans stepped down from party leadership a few weeks before she was scheduled to depart because she could no longer defend the president when he said the election was rigged and lobbied state officials to change the results.

John Minchillo/AP
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. As Congress prepares to affirm President-elect Joe Biden's victory, thousands of people have gathered to show their support for President Donald Trump and his claims of election fraud.(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

In fact, an increasing number of prominent Republicans distanced themselves from Trump even before last week’s storming of the Capitol.

“The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth,” Sen. Mitt Romney said on the Senate floor last week. “That's the burden, that's the duty of leadership.”

After police cleared rioters from the Capitol, Hawley’s effort to challenge the Electoral College results saw defections and increasing hostility in Congress and across mainstream politics.

Michael Suttmoeller, a Missouri State professor who studies extremism, said he doesn’t blame Hawley for inciting last week’s riot. But he said that the senator’s rhetoric “stoked” the flames.

“The people that ended up storming the Capitol,” Suttmoeller said, “They were waiting for somebody to tell them that they were right and (there was) fraud.”

“Turd in the punchbowl”

But there is some real abandonment of Hawley. Republican state Rep. Shamed Dogan in Ballwin said he’s never regretted voting for someone so much.

“He lost a lot of respect,” Dogan said. “I don't think he understands the depth of anger that's out there. I think he only listens to people who support him.”

Dogan is a political moderate Republican who voted for Joe Biden in November, the first time he’s ever voted for a Democrat for president.

In Washington, various Democratic senators are calling for Hawley’s resignation. And a Republican colleague said Hawley’s objections to the electoral college results were “really dumbass.” Democratic campaign consultant Martin Hamburger said Hawley can only play to the crowds now, without much hope of passing legislation.

“(The Senate is) a place where you can be effective if you're the turd in the Punchbowl,” Hamburger said, “but only in a limited way.”

This week, the 41-year-old Hawley went back on The Fox News Channel and complained to Tucker Carlson about the canceling of a book deal. It was his first interview since the riot, which wasn't discussed. Instead, to an audience of millions, he cast himself as a senator silenced by a publishing giant.

“At a time of division, we’ve got to rally around the things that unite us as Americans,” Hawley said. “The first amendment and free speech has got to be at the top of that list.”

Critics say a politician who’s touted himself as a constitutional law specialist would know that the First Amendment gives publishing houses the freedom not to print authors they disapprove of. But, like his effort to reverse the outcome of a presidential election, Hawley continues to cast himself as the defiant one.

In that context, Hawley represents a split between the forever-Trump wing of the party and those who’ve begun to distance themselves from a president ending his term in chaos.

Dogan and Evans want the Republican Party that represents conservative values, and doesn’t create fictions to win arguments or declare victory after an election.

“We have some problems and a lot of it has to do with the tepid support that President Trump has gotten for the first two years of his administration,” Schneider said. “I would like to think that the ‘Make America Great Again’ attitude will remain fully intact and in force.”

Aviva Okeson-Haberman was the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3.
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