The sex politics roiling the GOP are coming to a head in Missouri this week as Trump rallies for a Senate candidate

  • President Donald Trump’s visit to Missouri to campaign for Senate candidate Josh Hawley may draw unwanted attention to a series of GOP sex scandals Hawley is attempting to distance himself from.
  • If Hawley wants to unseat Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, many say he’ll need to win over suburban women, many of whom are frustrated by the GOP’s treatment of women.

President Donald Trump is making his third trip to Missouri as president on Wednesday, where he’ll promote GOP tax cuts and campaign for Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley, whose race offers one of the GOP’s best chances to turn a blue Senate seat red in November.

But Trump’s visit, amid the president’s latest sex scandal involving a porn star, might draw the wrong kind of attention to a candidate who’s attempting to distance himself from some messy sex scandals plaguing his allies.

In just the last few months, Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, has admitted to having an extramarital affair with his hair stylist and has been indicted on felony charges of threatening to blackmail her with a nude photo; Courtland Sykes, a far-right candidate for Senate, called feminists “career-obsessed banshees” with “nasty, snake-filled heads”; and Hawley himself made national headlines after attributing the problem of sex trafficking to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

“We’re living now with the terrible after-effects of this so-called revolution, which was in fact I think a great step back. And one of them is, one of those effects, is a crisis in our country that goes by the name of human trafficking,” Hawley said in an audio recording of his speech at a meeting of Christian conservatives in which he urged the audience to “preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill jumped at the chance to hit back at her opponent on an issue he championed as attorney general.

“I didn’t go to one of those fancy private schools, but the history I learned in public schools & Mizzou taught me that the evidence of trafficking of women for sex goes back to before 2000 BC,” she tweeted. “It didn’t begin with women’s rights and the birth control pill.”

Brooke Goren, the communications director for Missouri’s Democratic party, told Business Insider that Hawley’s comments show his “disdain for the progress that women have made toward gaining equal rights.”

Missouri Republican strategist James Harris says Hawley’s comments were taken out of context and will have little impact on the race. He added that the attorney general’s work on sex trafficking appeals to moderate GOP women.

“He’s the most thoughtful person, the most respectful of all citizens,” Harris told Business Insider. “Suburban women will feel very comfortable voting with him.”

But recent history suggests that Missouri voters do, in fact, care when their politicians make controversial comments about women.

It was GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin’s famous argument that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy that paved the way to McCaskill’s 2012 victory.

Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, says Hawley’s comments likely raised alarm bells among Republican donors and party leaders because it “raised the specter of the Akin debacle.”

And John Messmer, a political scientist running for a US House seat from Missouri, said that general “chaos” in the Missouri GOP may well discourage voters from supporting Hawley.

“Hanging over the head of every Missouri Republican is this sense of chaos. First Greitens (and to a lesser extent, Trump) and now the stuff clinging to Hawley,” Messmer, a Democrat, told Business Insider in an email. “My sense is that even the most conservative Missouri Republican is disappointed with how chaotic and dysfunctional the party leadership appears. It won’t cause them to vote for McCaskill, of course, but it might cause some of them to just not vote at all.”

Some Republicans agree that the Greitens’s and Trump’s sex scandals are liabilities for Hawley and others in the party.

“Unfortunately, for Missouri Republicans, all of our Republicans are going to have to answer questions about President Trump, about Governor Greitens,” Scott Dieckhaus, a Missouri Republican strategist, told Business Insider. “It’s going to be a choice for Republicans if they want to stay at arm’s-length from those folks and try to differentiate themselves or if they want to embrace the president and the governor and the possible risks that come with that.”

Suburban women are the battleground

Hawley’s support among college-educated suburban women will be key to a victory over McCaskill in the competitive contest in November, but this is precisely the group whose votes may be most affected by allegations of sexism or mistreatment of women.

“Missouri’s senate race is likely to be decided in the St. Louis and Kansas City suburbs,” Squire told Business Insider. “Hawley can ill afford to get tagged with any sort of sexist label, whether through association or from his own comments.”

The Washington Post interviewed a range of Republican-voting women in Missouri last month who say they are increasingly unhappy with the president’s treatment of women and the GOP’s sexist undertones.

“It’s frustrating knowing that the person that’s leading our country doesn’t necessarily prioritize or have respect for women the way that I think that the president should,” Audrey Smithe, a 29-year-old recruiter who described herself as a Republican-leaning independent, told The Post.

But Missourians are, overall, more supportive of Trump than voters in most other parts of the country. A January Gallup poll found the president’s approval in the state at 47% (with 48% disapproval), and Republicans argue that the majority of voters are supportive of Trump’s policy agenda, if not his rhetoric.

So the party hopes a visit from Trump will steer the debate to national policy issues like tax cuts and job growth.

“The economy’s improving, wages are going up, there’s more job growth. And those are the issues that matter,” Harris said. “The vast majority of Missouri voters are thankful we have President Trump.”