Magazine | May 14, 2018, Issue

Josh Hawley’s Worthy Climb

Josh Hawley (John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images)
On the Missouri attorney general who is running for Senate

Springfield, Mo.

When Josh Hawley tells his story on the stump — the autobiographical bit that he told three times in three places across Missouri on March 13, as he formally announced his Senate candidacy — he talks about growing up in a small town, where he learned small-town values: hard work, honesty, and so forth. “In time,” he continues, “I would go off to college, then law school and other places.”

This skips over quite a lot — and so another one of those small-town values might be modesty, or perhaps reticence. That’s because Hawley’s college was Stanford. His law school was Yale. And the “other places”? They include clerking for the chief justice of the Supreme Court, writing a well-received book on presidential history, and joining the legal team that triumphed in a landmark religious-freedom case. Then there’s his 2016 race for attorney general of Missouri, which he won handily, but most of his Republican supporters already know that because they voted for him. They also know that Hawley now finds himself in what may be the most watched Senate race of 2018 — a contest that, as President Trump put it at a fundraiser for Hawley on March 14, “the whole world is watching.” That’s an overstatement, though it may be true that Missouri’s Senate election will matter more than any of the other Senate races.

Running against two-term Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, Hawley is one of the reasons that some Republicans think they could pick up seats in the Senate this year, even if they lose them in the House and suffer other down-ballot defeats in the sort of midterm slump that parties in power tend to suffer. The GOP certainly doesn’t have much room for error. Republican senators currently occupy 51 seats, which means they can afford only a single net loss and remain able to pull off party-line votes in the chamber, with the vice president breaking ties. They’ll gain a bit of breathing room if Hawley wins in Missouri, which is one of several Trump-friendly states with a Democratic incumbent who is up for reelection. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by nearly 19 points. The only Republican on the statewide ticket to outperform him, in fact, was Missouri’s new rising star: Josh Hawley.

The 38-year-old Joshua David Hawley is a child of the 1970s, just barely: He was born on December 31, 1979, in the Ozarks city of Springdale, Ark. The family soon moved to Missouri, and so Hawley grew up mostly in Lexington, a town of fewer than 5,000 people, east of Kansas City. His father was a banker and his mother a schoolteacher. In 1988, when Hawley was in the third grade, his father hosted George W. Bush in Lexington as Bush campaigned for his father’s presidential election. “He came by my elementary school, ducked his head in our classroom, and waved,” says Hawley. “That’s the only time I’ve ever seen him in person.”

Outside of school, Hawley’s political education developed in other ways. He read columns by George F. Will, sometimes tracking down the books that Will recommended. He listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. He also attended Rockhurst High School, an all-boys Catholic school in Kansas City (as well as the alma mater of Tim Kaine, the Democratic senator from Virginia who was Clinton’s running mate two years ago). Hawley isn’t Catholic, but his parents wanted him to go to a school with strong academics. Commuting by car took an hour each way. The effort seems to have paid off, as Stanford University accepted Hawley for enrollment in the fall of 1998.

“That’s where I discovered the discipline of constitutional law,” says Hawley, who majored in history. He credits Professor David M. Kennedy as a mentor. “We don’t share political views, not by a long shot, but he taught me how to read and understand documents the way they were written and not how we wish they were written.” Kennedy, a 51-year veteran of Stanford, gives Hawley high marks: “He is among the half dozen most capable undergraduates I’ve taught.” Under Kennedy, Hawley wrote an honors thesis on Theodore Roosevelt. “He was a childhood hero of mine, as I suppose he is for many kids,” says Hawley. As he studied, his fascination with Roosevelt deepened but also turned skeptical. “I became interested in the progressive period and how it tried to transform our ideas of law and democracy. Roosevelt sits at a pivot point. He was a progressive, not a conservative like me, but he was also a transitional figure between the old and the new.”

When he wasn’t sitting in classrooms, Hawley immersed himself in Stanford’s conservative subculture, writing for the Stanford Review and attending events sponsored by the Hoover Institution. “I gobbled up its programming,” he says, mentioning talks by free-market economists John F. Cogan and John B. Taylor as well as Reagan-administration speechwriter Peter Robinson. One summer, Hawley interned at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. He worked for Matthew Spalding, a scholar of the Constitution. “He asked me who I most wanted to meet in Washington, D.C.,” recalls Hawley. “I said, ‘George Will.’ He told me to write a letter. So I did.” Will wrote back and the two met for lunch. They also stayed in touch.

Following graduation from Stanford in 2002, Hawley moved to London, where he taught American history to the boys at St. Paul’s School. He also looked ahead to a legal career. He cites A Matter of Interpretation, the 1997 book by the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, as an inspiration and says he picked Yale Law School because of its reputation for the study of constitutional law. He joined Yale’s chapter of the Federalist Society and became its president. He also organized Bible-study groups, including one aimed at nonbelievers.

From there, he secured a clerkship with Michael W. McConnell, who at the time was a circuit judge on the federal court of appeals in Colorado. “He was my dream judge — a self-professed Evangelical, which is a rare thing in the legal world,” says Hawley. “He was also a textualist who was interested in religious liberty.” Next came a clerkship with John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court. This was not only an important professional step but also a personal one: Hawley met the woman who became his wife, a fellow clerk for Roberts. “We shared an office and started dating but didn’t tell the chief and went to great lengths to conceal our relationship,” says Hawley. “The office manager figured it out, but she kept it to herself.” Nine months after leaving the court, they scheduled a meeting with Roberts to announce their engagement — except he figured it out as soon as they walked in the door. “I have a great sense of foreboding,” he deadpanned, according to Hawley. Today, Josh and Erin Hawley have two young children.

In 2008, during his time with Roberts, Hawley published Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, an intellectual biography of the president. An expanded version of his honors thesis at Stanford, it treats Roosevelt as a prideful but serious thinker whose faith in state action shaped the Progressive Era and possibly laid the groundwork for the rise of neoconservatism decades later. In a column, Will touted the book as a tool for understanding John McCain, then running as the Republican nominee for president. “That was a huge thrill,” says Hawley. “Will had helped introduce me to the concept that politics is not just rhetoric. It’s about ideas. Now he was writing about some of my ideas.”

By the time McCain lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama, Hawley was working as a lawyer at Hogan & Hartson (now called Hogan Lovells). He might have enjoyed a long and lucrative career there as a top-flight lawyer and lobbyist, but he left for a full-time job at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm. “With his background, Josh could have done anything,” says Kristina Arriaga, former executive director of the Becket Fund. “He decided not to devote himself to personal enrichment. Instead, he decided to work for religious freedom.” As Becket’s senior counsel, he participated in the Hobby Lobby case, which eventually led to a Supreme Court ruling that protected businesses from government mandates that violate their owners’ religious beliefs. “Josh was instrumental in providing expertise, based on his knowledge of the Constitution,” says Peter Dobelbower, Hobby Lobby’s senior vice president and general counsel.

Hawley says he never intended to spend his career in Washington, D.C., and in 2011, he moved back to his home state, continuing to work for Becket but also becoming a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. As early as 2012, he says, Republicans had approached him about running for attorney general, but he demurred. By 2016, however, he knew he wanted to do it. “I’m a constitutional lawyer who wants to make a difference,” he says. He felt another motive, too: “The weight of the Obama years finally had set in, and attorneys general from around the country had been the most effective resisters of Obama’s agenda.” Hawley points to Greg Abbott of Texas and Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma, now governor of the Lone Star State and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, respectively. He captured the GOP nomination for attorney general and went on to a big victory in November, becoming the first Republican to hold the office since 1993 and earning more votes than anybody else in the state, including Trump. “Josh led the ticket,” Jack Danforth, the retired Republican senator, told CNN.

It also looked like Hawley might keep the job for a while. In a campaign ad, he criticized “career politicians just climbing the ladder, using one office to get another.” It even featured men in suits, climbing ladders. At the time, in fact, every metaphorical ladder seemed out of Hawley’s figurative reach. Eric Greitens, another young Republican, had won the governorship in 2016 and presumably would seek reelection in 2020, though this was before he fell into political and legal trouble over his marital infidelity. Moreover, Republican congresswoman Ann Wagner appeared to have dibs on challenging McCaskill for the Senate in 2018. Then, in what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dubbed a “surprise announcement,” Wagner said last July that she wouldn’t run. For many Republicans, the obvious alternative was the guy who had just become attorney general. Hawley came under intense pressure to seek a new office, taking calls from both Missouri Republicans and national GOP leaders.

A key moment came last summer, as Hawley visited Washington, D.C., where he met with Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. “We’re similar in age and I admire him,” says Hawley. For a vote on health care, he accompanied the senator on a walk through the underground passage that connects the Russell Senate Office Building and the Capitol. “I remember seeing these Republican senators who had run against Obamacare and even voted against it, and now they were switching their votes, refusing to repeal and replace it,” says Hawley. “For me, this really crystallized the stakes. We need to have the courage of our convictions.” Cotton remembers the conversation, too. “We have lots of distinguished lions of the Senate,” he says. “It would be helpful to have some fresh blood around here. Josh would be a strong voice on legal issues.”

Hawley eventually decided to throw his hat in the ring, to use the cliché that Theodore Roosevelt helped popularize more than a century ago. Responding to those who accuse him of having too much ambition, and of breaking his implicit promise to remain attorney general for a stretch, he tries to switch the topic to McCaskill’s extensive career: “She’s been in politics for about as long as I’ve been alive.” That’s true. In 1982, McCaskill won a seat in the Missouri legislature. She has climbed ladders ever since, becoming a county prosecutor and a state auditor, and finally winning her Senate seat in 2006, when she defeated the Republican incumbent, Jim Talent.

“I had not planned to do this,” adds Hawley. “But ultimately I came to believe that this is an urgent moment. We’re at an inflection point. The choices we make today will set the trajectory for the next 50 years.” Specifically, he mentions “the balance of the judiciary.” Many conservatives believe Hawley could become a force on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is the gateway for appointments to the federal bench, including the Supreme Court, which currently has two octogenarian justices and will gain a third in August, when Stephen Breyer turns 80.

In many ways, Hawley is a conventional conservative: pro-life and pro-gun, a supporter of regulatory rollback, and an advocate of the recent tax cuts. On trade, he notes that Missouri’s top industry is agriculture: “NAFTA has been a good thing, particularly for farmers,” he says, before adding, “We need to go after folks who are violating our trade agreements.” He’s cautious about the emerging trade war with China. “We don’t know how it will shake out. I’m against any deal that closes markets to our farmers.” As attorney general, he has sued opioid makers for threatening consumer safety. He’s investigating Google for breaking antitrust laws and Facebook for its data-collection practices. “I’m for the free market, but I’m against monopoly and fraud,” says Hawley. “I’m also concerned about the drift in our economy toward corporatism. We’ve got to make sure that competition is open and fair.” If nothing else, these moves recall the executive energy of Roosevelt.

Democrats have tried to link Hawley to Greitens, who appeared to have his own bright future until January. That’s when the governor acknowledged an affair with a hair stylist and faced accusations of threatening to blackmail her. At first, Hawley sought to distance himself from his fellow Republican and launched his own probe: “I’m obliged to follow the law without regard to political consideration,” he said. Now he believes the governor should resign, having announced this opinion on April 12, after the release of a bombshell report from a Missouri house committee that included allegations of violence. So far, Greitens has refused to quit — and Democrats hope that if he hangs on, his troubles will hurt Hawley in November.

McCaskill, for her part, occasionally strays from liberal orthodoxies. She has supported construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and has worked with Republicans to ban earmarks, but she has also defended Obamacare and fought many of Trump’s nominations. Hawley points to her vote a year ago to deny Neil Gorsuch a seat on the Supreme Court: “You’ve got to be kidding me!” he says, exasperated even now. “She’s broken all promises of bipartisanship. We can’t have that for another six years.” As for his own bipartisan potential, Hawley says he’d like to work with Democrats to expand the child tax credit.

Missourians have rejected the 64-year-old McCaskill before. She failed in a race for governor in 2004, and she might have lost her Senate reelection in 2012, when Mitt Romney carried the Show-Me State. Fortunately for her, Todd Akin, the GOP’s nominee, destroyed his own candidacy by uttering his infamous remark about “legitimate rape.” Hawley hopes a new phrase will mark this election: “Hollywood Claire,” the Trumpy nickname he has trotted out on Twitter in an effort to link the heartland senator to coastal liberals.

The polls are close. At this early stage, they don’t mean much — except possibly to signal that anything can happen, as Hawley strives to write the next chapter in his emerging story of moving from place to place, ever upward.

John J. Miller — John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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