MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. — Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley pushed hard at a debate Friday to paint Claire McCaskill as "another Washington liberal," a phrase he repeated over and over, while the incumbent Democrat touted herself as a moderate compromiser.
The Missouri Press Association hosted a candidate forum that featured the two front-runners and two other candidates. It marked the first time the candidates have debated.
The stakes are huge: The race in Missouri is among the nation's most closely-watched campaigns, one of a handful expected to decide which party controls the Senate, where Republicans currently hold a 51-49 advantage.
Both sides are spending heavily, and outside groups are buying up ad time across the state. Polls indicate the race is a toss-up.
Hawley, the state's 38-year-old first-term attorney general, has the support of President Donald Trump, who carried Missouri by 19 percentage points in 2016. At least seven times during the hour-long debate he referred to McCaskill as "another Washington liberal."
McCaskill, 65 and seeking her third term, said she supports the president when it benefits Missouri and opposes him when it does not. She said she wakes up every day wondering what she can do for Missouri, "the red parts and the blue parts."
Hawley also attempted to portray McCaskill as an obstructionist to the president's policies as well as an out-of-touch elitist. He repeated claims used in political ads that her husband has received $131 million in federal subsidies to build low-income housing.
McCaskill, clearly angered, said that as a senator she had no role in approving tax credits for projects in which her husband, Joseph Shepard, was a minority partner.
McCaskill said Shepard "started out with nothing and he built a fabulously successful business, creating thousands of jobs and great wealth. I met him, I fell in love with him, and we have a wonderful family. He's done nothing wrong."
Hawley, meanwhile, took exception to McCaskill's long-standing criticism of his decision as attorney general to join a lawsuit against former President Barack Obama's health care law. McCaskill said families would lose coverage for pre-existing conditions if the lawsuit is successful.
Hawley said his own young son has a bone condition and he would never support any change that wouldn't cover pre-existing conditions.
"It's not true," Hawley said of McCaskill's characterization. "She knows it's not true, and the repetition, frankly, is turning into an outright lie."
The two candidates differed on several other issues. McCaskill said Trump's escalating trade war is hurting farmers as well as manufacturers. But Hawley applauded the president for standing up to unfair trade practices in other countries, particularly China.
Hawley said he supports Trump's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Speaking to reporters after the debate, Hawley said the Senate should confirm the nomination despite a new allegation of sexual misconduct when Kavanaugh was in high school.
Hawley said he never disregards sexual misconduct allegations but this one "appears to be another attempt to stall and delay" Kavanaugh's confirmation.
McCaskill said she was concerned about thousands of pages related to Kavanaugh that were not initially turned over to the Senate, and was also troubled by his rulings on dark money. She said she was still undecided on her confirmation vote.
The debate during the press association's annual meeting in suburban St. Louis also included independent candidate Craig O'Dear and Green Party candidate Jo Crain.