KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CN) – All eyes are on the Show-Me State as Missouri voters teeter between a Democratic incumbent and a Republican challenger in a race that could determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
Democrats are passionate about keeping their two-term Senator Claire McCaskill in office, while Republicans are rallying behind Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley in his fight to take over the coveted seat in a state known for voting red.
Poll aggregator RealClearPolitics calls the race a toss up, but shows a slight advantage for Hawley.
In addition to winning new ones, Democrats must keep their Senate seats in states that President Donald Trump carried in the 2016 election – seats like McCaskill’s – if they hope to gain control of Congress.
The final debate between the political rivals was hosted by local ABC affiliate KMBC on Thursday. They tangled over the finer details of health care, border security and gun control.
Both accused the other of making personal attacks in scathing advertising campaigns funded by dark money. Hawley called McCaskill desperate, while she accused him of fraud. The entire debate reflected the heated political climate across the country.
“This is a problem on both sides. We need to turn the temperature down,” McCaskill said.
Hawley, meanwhile, refused to blame the Trump administration or the GOP for nationwide political turmoil.
“It was the Senate Democrats who launched a personal smear campaign against [Supreme Court Justice] Brett Kavanaugh; it was Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder who have encouraged confrontation if not violence,” he said, adding that tribal politics is not what voters deserve.
In a state where President Trump clobbered Hilary Clinton by nearly 20 points in the 2016 election, Hawley is using his alliance with the president to his advantage – although critics say that is exactly why he is not the right candidate for the job.
“I might have taken Hawley seriously if President Trump had not campaigned for him…. [Trump] has no diplomacy and is hurting Republicans,” said Barbara Spangler, a diabetic who can’t afford to lose Obamacare, which Hawley is strongly against. “If we zip his mouth and break his thumbs we’d be fine.”
Spangler knew coming into Thursday’s debate that McCaskill would be getting her vote based on several aligning views, and she left even more committed to her candidate.
“I’ll be honest, if he would have said ‘liberal Democrat’ one more time…I wanted to throw something,” she said after the debate.
Not meant to be a term of endearment, Hawley used the phrase over a dozen times, much to the chagrin of McCaskill and her supporters, who lump Trump and Hawley in the same category.
“You could play a drinking game to how many times he says that and you’d be wasted by the end,” Jerome Johnson said after the debate.
“He’s a phony and strikes me as not genuine,” the federal employee from Kansas City said of Hawley, who touts his Lexington, Missouri, roots but attended Stanford and Yale.
Johnson was also pleased with how McCaskill called out the president on his lies.
“I get that politicians lie, but he lies about things that are clearly and visibly false and she holds him accountable,” he said.
“I think Donald Trump is a racist, sexist, disease of a president who cares only for himself,” said Emily Farris, a writer and Kansas City resident who strongly supports McCaskill.
“There’s no way I’d ever vote for an anti-choice candidate – well, unless that person were running for president, because at this point I’d vote for a dirty diaper over the incumbent,” she added.
Farris, who lives in a diverse neighborhood across from a polling location, plans to spend much of Election Day offering support to anyone who might feel intimidated to cast their vote.
On the other hand, Hawley supporters are frustrated with the incumbent’s proclivity to sway her stance on important issues.
Bombshell videos were recently released by Project Veritas, an independent group of right-wing journalists who infiltrated McCaskill’s campaign. The videos purportedly show her staff members admitting that the senator’s views often waver on controversial topics, such as gun control and Planned Parenthood, to avoid alienating potential voters.
“Since Project Veritas has revealed that what Senator McCaskill says in public is all for show anyway, I really don’t think it matters what questions are asked,” Jackson County Republican committeewoman Jennifer L. Finch said of Thursday’s debate.
McCaskill has formally asked that the attorney general’s office appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the videos, as she is convinced that her opponent is somehow involved.
“That’s not very smart,” University of Missouri-Kansas City freshman Angelo J. Pacheco said of McCaskill’s accusations, which have strengthened his support for Hawley.
“Blame James O’Keefe, founder of Project Veritas Action Fund, which is an independent organization that exposes corruption,” he said.
When it comes to other hot topics such as health care and border security, both candidates see eye to eye on the basics but attack each other over the specifics.
“Make no mistake about it, when Josh Hawley decided to go to court with your tax dollars, he made a conscious decision to do that knowing that there was no back up. That’s why he doesn’t want that case decided before November,” McCaskill said of a Texas-led lawsuit filed against the Affordable Care Act. Hawley enlisted Missouri as a plaintiff in the case.
Hawley claimed the ACA, better known as Obamacare, is not needed to cover people with pre-existing conditions and that federal reinsurance is one way to do it.
“Now Senator McCaskill has signed on to a bill which is exactly what I have proposed… this whole campaign has been a big scare tactic,” he said during the debate.
She rebutted, “He went to Yale for law school. I went to Mizzou for law school but I can keep up. He knows there is no safety net.”
As for border control, both candidates in deep-red Missouri stand with the president while a caravan of thousands of migrants makes its way towards the U.S. border.
McCaskill said Trump should use every tool at his disposal to protect our borders, while Hawley claimed that the caravan is a national security crisis brewing by the hour.
“I’m surprised to hear her talk about the border. She has said that the wall is embarrassing,” Hawley said, once again calling McCaskill a liberal Democrat when it comes to immigration. “There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s not what our country needs.”
McCaskill argued that she has voted time and time again for funding for Trump’s proposed border wall, is endorsed by the Border Patrol union and only doubted a wall “from sea to shining sea,” as that isn’t possible in certain areas.
In conclusion, McCaskill insinuated Hawley is young, inexperienced and trying to jump ship from the state attorney general’s office before fulfilling his promises.
Hawley thanked his opponent for her years of service but said it is time for someone who doesn’t owe anything to anyone to take over in Washington.
“I don’t appreciate the way he spoke about the senator’s career like it was over,” said Ron Hetherington after the debate. A member of the Pipefitters Local 533 in Kansas City, he was also disappointed that he wasn’t able to question Hawley about his position on unions, after a proposed anti-union, right-to-work law was rejected by voters in August.
“Over 67 percent of the voters voted ‘no’ on Prop A, and I wanted to force him to answer against the majority,” Hetherington said of Hawley, who danced around the question at an earlier debate.
Hetherington said he has always been in McCaskill’s corner.
“I know she isn’t perfect – who is? But the gist of it is she is for the working families in the state of Missouri,” he said.