Josh Hawley, the Missouri attorney general and Republican candidate for the Senate, in St. Charles, Mo., on Sept. 27. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
Columnist

Here in Missouri’s southeast, which calls itself the Bootheel and nurses a genial distrust of the state’s metropolitan fleshpots (St. Louis, Kansas City), the loudspeaker is blasting out John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” as Josh Hawley’s cowboy boots alight from his campaign bus at this stop on the “Stop Schumer, Fire Claire Tour.” Before he became a Senate candidate, and before he became Missouri’s attorney general — after Stanford, Yale Law School (where he met his wife, Erin; they clerked together for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.) — Hawley grew up in a rural Missouri county .

Erin Hawley, the daughter of fifth-generation New Mexico ranchers, also is comfortable speaking beneath slate-gray-seeping Midwestern skies, in front of enormous bins of rice, to a small but grateful gathering of farmers.

Josh Hawley reminds them that he has litigated against the Waters of the United States rule, by which the federal government torments farmers, treating any occasionally soggy parcel of land as ripe for regulation. While in private practice, he supported Hobby Lobby’s successful appeal to the Supreme Court, arguing that the company’s free exercise of religion was denied by Obamacare’s requirement that employers provide employees with all kinds of contraception, including abortifacient drugs. This keenly interests whoever filled a field alongside Interstate 55 with little white crosses for victims of abortions.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill might soon be relieved of the strain of pretending to not be what she is — much more liberal than her state. Until recently, Missouri was America’s bellwether: It voted with the winner in all but one 20th-century presidential election. (In 1956, it favored Adlai Stevenson, who hailed from across the river in Illinois.) But in 2008, John McCain won Missouri narrowly (3,903 votes), Mitt Romney won by nine points in 2012 and Donald Trump by 18.5 points , so it now is much more Republican than the nation.

McCaskill, 65, has been in politics almost as long (36 years ) as Hawley, 38,  has been alive. The timing of McCaskill’s first Senate campaign was lucky, and her second campaign illustrated the axiom that luck is the residue of design. In 2006, a blue tsunami washed her into the Senate. In 2012, she selected her opponent by funding ads that solemnly warned Republican primary voters, many of them very conservative, that Todd Akin was very conservative. They nominated him, and he self-immolated with the interesting physiological theory that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy.

McCaskill boasts that she supposedly ranks as “the fifth-most-likely senator to break with my party.” But the difference between the fifth-most-likely and the least likely is insignificant in an era when the Senate votes on almost nothing. And on something that mattered, the Supreme Court nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch, she was conspicuously not one of the three Democrats who voted for him. Her campaign has run an ad featuring a make-believe conversation between Two Ordinary Guys, one of whom says, “Claire’s not one of those crazy Democrats.” This, which drove Missouri Democrats crazy, was probably a response to the post-Brett M. Kavanaugh backlash against Democrats, which has probably propelled Hawley to a mid-single-digit lead.

If elected, Hawley will be the youngest senator (two years younger than Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton ) in a body where today the average age is 63. Though never is heard a discouraging word from Hawley about his party’s leader, Hawley is educated and thoughtful, so it is possible to hope that he is as insincere in his praise of the president as McCaskill is in her insistence that she is really not like those anti-Kavanaugh hysterics led by almost all of her Democratic colleagues in the Senate. She supported the gross violations of due process that were mandated by the Education Department in response to hysteria about the fictional “campus rape culture.”

This is an era of “let’s pretend” politics, as Republicans who control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue run trillion-dollar deficits during full employment while pretending to believe in fiscal rectitude, and Senate Democrats pretend to be thoughtful while their combined votes on two Supreme Court and 29 appellate court nominees are 391 for and 1,084 against. Hawley, who hopes to serve on the Judiciary Committee (a Republican seat is opening: Utah’s Orrin G. Hatch is retiring), is an actual, not a pretend, conservative — though he has written a serious but too-admiring book mistakenly calling Theodore Roosevelt a conservative. Hawley can be part of the GOP’s intelligent future, if it chooses to have one.

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