There will probably be more U.S. Senate debates in Missouri this year than in 2016 or 2012, but that’s not enough for Attorney General Josh Hawley.

The first meeting between incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Hawley, her Republican challenger, will take place Sept. 14 in St. Louis at the Missouri Press Association annual convention. McCaskill has agreed to two other meetings with Hawley, her campaign stated in an email. Hawley has accepted 13 invitations to debate, he said at a Columbia campaign stop Tuesday.

Hawley brought a trailer with podiums and straw bales to Peak Sport and Spine on Berrywood Drive that he’s been using on a tour of the state to chide McCaskill about debating. Hawley began the tour after the Aug. 7 primary when he formally received the GOP nomination.

“I think it symbolizes that I am ready to meet her and debate the issues in a fair and open manner anytime, anywhere and she’s not,” Hawley said.

At the stop, Hawley accused McCaskill of trying to avoid debates but she issued a challenge to hold four debates after Hawley became the official GOP nominee.

McCaskill ignored most of Hawley’s calls for debate before he was the nominee. During the run-up to the primary, Hawley refused to appear on the same stage as his GOP rivals.

McCaskill called for town hall style debates and criticized Hawley for not holding town hall meetings with voters.

"As a U.S. Senator it is my job to hold myself accountable to all Missourians," McCaskill wrote in the challenge letter to Hawley and the news release that accompanied it. "That's why I've held public town halls with Missourians throughout my time as Senator — including more than 50 across the state since 2017. ...Missourians deserve the same chance to ask you questions and hear your answers as they have consistently had with me."

McCaskill is seeking her third term in the Senate and making her sixth statewide race overall. Hawley was elected attorney general in 2016 and is making his second statewide run.

The Senate race in Missouri is one of the most competitive nationally and re-electing McCaskill is a key part of Democratic hopes of recapturing control of the Senate. It has featured tens of millions of dollars in spending by outside groups on behalf of both candidates and they have exchanged charges that each will be captive to the interests spending that money.

In 2016, in another hard-fought race, incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt only debated his Democratic opponent, then-Secretary of State Jason Kander, one time. McCaskill and her 2012 GOP opponent, then-U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, met for only two debates.

The two other debates McCaskill has accepted are being put on by St. Louis media – KSDK television, KETC television and St. Louis Public Radio – and Kansas City’s KMBC television. McCaskill is “waiting to hear back from others on additional town hall debates,” spokesman Eric Mee wrote.

One sticking point for whether Hawley agrees to debates will be the presence of other candidates on the November ballot. The Missouri Press Association debate will include independent candidate Craig O’Dear and two minor party candidates, Libertarian Japheth Campbell and Green Party nominee Jo Crain.

“Claire welcomes having other candidates on the ballot participate,” Mee wrote.

Hawley, however, said he wants a clear shot at McCaskill.

“The voters deserve to hear from the two of us,” Hawley said. “She is the one who is the incumbent, she’s got this job, she wants to get hired again. She should defend her record, I am her challenger, I want to debate her person to person, face to face.”

Republicans are pressuring McCaskill to vote in favor of Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. McCaskill met with Kavanaugh last week and has indicated she will wait until after the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing to announce how she will vote.

Hawley announced his support for Kavanaugh on the day he was nominated by Republican President Donald Trump, before any senator had met with Kavanaugh or any of the thousands of documents released about his career were available.

“I continue to call on Sen. McCaskill to announce her support for Judge Kavanaugh," Hawley said. "Announce it now, don’t wait, stand up to her party, challenge them to do so and let’s debate it."

Another issue could be the Senate’s schedule in the final month of the campaign. The schedule is set by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who worked hard to recruit Hawley for the campaign. Mee wrote that Hawley “has a direct line to Mitch” to create room in the schedule for debates.

There is time in the schedule for debates regardless of how much time the Senate is in session in October, Hawley said.

“She’s the senator from the state of Missouri,” Hawley said. “She’s got plenty of time to debate. She’s got weekends, she’s got Mondays, she’s got plenty of time to debate.”

rkeller@columbiatribune.com

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