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Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, listens as a joint session of the House and Senate reconvenes to confirm the Electoral College votes at the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

JEFFERSON CITY — Josh Hawley grabbed national headlines, cheers from supporters of President Donald Trump and effusive praise from the White House when he became the first member of the U.S. Senate to announce he would object to electoral votes of at least one state won by President-elect Joe Biden.

A week later, Hawley was lying low — with critics labeling him a political opportunist whose efforts were partly responsible for the mayhem that engulfed the U.S. Capitol. 

Hawley’s change in fortunes happened quickly. Hours after he was photographed raising his fist in support of protesters who had gathered in Washington at Trump’s urging, many of them swarmed the “people’s house,” vandalizing and ransacking government property and terrorizing lawmakers and staff. Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died.

In the wake of the violence, which forced the suspension of the electoral vote count, many Republicans who said they would object to some states’ results changed their minds, clearly shaken by the unprecedented assault on democratic governance unleashed by Trump’s minions.

But not Hawley.

The 41-year-old junior senator from Missouri pushed forward, his objection to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes helping drag what usually is a ceremonial process into early Thursday. In the end, only six other senators voted with him. Hawley, not even halfway through his first term, was widely excoriated for pointless obstructionism, with some critics going so far as to say Hawley had helped incite a riot and had blood on his hands.

Now, former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, who was largely responsible for Hawley’s meteoric rise, is calling Hawley his “worst mistake.” David Humphreys, a major GOP donor in Missouri who poured money into Hawley’s first statewide race, says he should be censured by the U.S. Senate. Simon & Schuster canceled plans to publish Hawley’s planned book on Big Tech, citing the “deadly insurrection” at the Capitol.

How Hawley can escape this opprobrium and untether himself from the disturbing images in Washington is unclear. To at least some in his GOP caucus, and many others, Hawley’s legacy will likely be forever linked to Wednesday’s violence.

“Those who choose to continue to support his (Trump’s) dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election, will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy,” U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said on the Senate floor hours after the Capitol attack. “That will be their legacy.”

In an implicit shot at Hawley, Senate Majority Whip John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who has urged other Republicans to accept the election results, said, according to CNN, “Had we not had senators who decided to object, we probably wouldn’t have had that many people in town, if the president hadn’t encouraged them all to come to town.” 

The anger among Trump supporters had been building for weeks, as the president and GOP leaders like Hawley continued to raise doubts.

That anger even swept over loyal Republicans who were not seen as aggressive enough.

Jean Evans, former executive director of the Missouri GOP, said she quit weeks before her two-year term was to expire after facing “increasingly violent” phone calls from angry Trump supporters. She said that as executive director of the party, she is supposed to back everything Republicans do.

“And I don’t,” Evans said. “I didn’t, so I felt it was best to just stop.”

She said she disagreed with Hawley, but said he wasn’t even at least partially to blame for the riot. “I’m not going to put that on Josh Hawley,” she said.

Hawley’s staff did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

Political calculation

Up until Wednesday, Hawley had been widely seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, an heir to the Trump legacy, and a likely candidate for president in 2024. 

And his decision to be first in objecting to the election results was widely seen in that context.

Missouri Attorney General and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley addresses the crowd alongside President Donald Trump during a Make America Great Again rally on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, at Hangar 350 at the Columbia Regional Airport. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Peverill Squire, political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said it seems clear Hawley’s actions were aimed at “elevating his national profile, probably because he is contemplating running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.

“The political calculation he is making is that core Trump supporters will provide him a base on which to build a run for the nomination,” Squire said. “The problem Hawley faces is that we do not know what Trump’s political stock will be three weeks from now, much less three years down the road.

“Hawley is now closely tied to Trump in the minds of many Americans, which may prove less advantageous by 2024 than appeared to be the case to the senator last week,” Squire said. The image of Hawley raising his fist “will likely haunt any of his future political campaigns because it makes it easy to tie him to the riot that followed.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, gestures toward a crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered outside the U.S. Capitol to protest the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral college victory Jan. 6, 2021 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Some demonstrators later breached security and stormed the Capitol. (Francis Chung/E&E News and Politico via AP Images)

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Interestingly, some other possible 2024 contenders are plotting out their post-Trump futures — without continuing to fight against Trump’s loss. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, on Twitter Thursday blasted “some” senators who sent out fundraising pleas before the breach.

Hawley’s campaign sent out a fundraising pitch shortly before the breach, the Kansas City Star reported Wednesday. The campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and another objector, also sent out a fundraising request Wednesday.

“You have some senators, who for political advantage, were giving false hope to their supporters, misleading them into thinking that somehow yesterday’s actions in Congress could reverse the results of the election,” Cotton said on Fox News. “That was never going to happen.” 

Former Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Democrat who lost to Hawley in 2018 and a current contributor to MSNBC, questioned whether Hawley was making a political mistake.

“Frankly, I’m not sure — is he making a political mistake?” McCaskill said. “Time will tell. I mean, our state has gotten pretty Trumpy. It’s hard for people in St. Louis to understand it. But, as somebody who did 50 town halls in 2017 after Trump was president, I can assure you I understand it.

“I think this is all about a national stage for him and he’s accomplished his goal, for good or for bad,” she said. “Clearly his calculus was — and everything is calculated with him — that this would separate him from the rest of the Trump wannabes.

“The question is: over time, will Trump loyalists be enough to carry him where he wants to go?” McCaskill asked.

Fallout from Wednesday

Never holding political office before, Hawley taught constitutional law at the University of Missouri-Columbia before he ran for attorney general in 2016. Though he blasted ladder-climbing politicians, he was one — proven when he decided less than two years later to run against McCaskill.

While the attorney general’s office fell into disarray, with high turnover rates and controversy over political hires, Hawley’s taxpayer-paid staff met with political consultants perhaps more than a dozen times in the months leading up to his Senate campaign launch.

Key to Hawley’s rise were GOP heavy-hitters, especially Danforth. The former senator’s support was key to keeping U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, out of the 2018 race.

On Thursday, Danforth was suffering from buyer’s remorse, declaring his support for Hawley’s 2018 Senate bid was the “worst mistake I have ever made in my life.”  

But the criticism came from all quarters.

Cori Bush, the new representative from Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, called for Hawley’s removal from Congress. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, said Hawley and Cruz should resign — or face expulsion. 

The vice chair of Missouri’s Democrats posted Hawley’s office phone numbers on Thursday in an effort to flood his lines with resignation calls. 

State Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, called Hawley’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s election was “an embarrassment.” 

“I have never regretted a vote as much and as quickly as my vote for @HawleyMO in 2018,” Dogan said via Twitter.  

Condemnation even came from the University of Missouri in Columbia, where Hawley had been a constitutional law professor. The Student Bar Association of the university’s School of Law issued a statement, calling on Hawley to resign: “Senator Hawley raised a fist in solidarity with insurrectionists who would … seek to rip the Constitution to shreds. He should resign immediately.”

What’s next?

J. Miles Coleman, associate editor for the Sabato’s Crystal Ball political newsletter at the University of Virginia, said he isn’t writing Hawley’s political obituary quite yet. 

“We’ve seen this a lot during the Trump era: it’s the American public collectively has a very short memory,” he said. 

In this image from video, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks as the Senate reconvenes to debate the objection to confirm the Electoral College Vote from Arizona, after protesters stormed into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

Hawley might continue to act as an outlier within his caucus, similar in style to Cruz, who forced a government shutdown in 2013 in an ill-fated effort to defund the Affordable Care Act. Cruz nearly won the 2016 GOP presidential primary, losing only to Trump.

“We have had other times where other members have tried to kind of pull this type of thing,” Coleman said. “Not to this extent.”

Still, Coleman said he expects Democrats, and probably Republicans, to use the image of Hawley raising his fist toward protesters in ads for years.

“But I’m sort of hesitant to say that this is — that his political career is done,” he said.