WASHINGTON — Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri — a 41-year-old Republican who exudes the energy of a youth pastor — doesn’t at first glance look like a man who’s on the outs.
He confidently strides the halls of the Capitol in his tailored suits, briefly taking questions from reporters in between hits on Fox News and heated questioning of President Biden’s nominees from his seat on the Judiciary Committee.
But ever since Jan. 6, when Hawley was captured in a news photo raising his fist in solidarity with protesters who later stormed the Capitol, the first-term senator has become a magnet of blistering criticism. Democrats and some Republicans have slammed him for his decision to become the first senator to object to the presidential election results, an echo to the falsehoods of President Trump.
His former mentor in Missouri disowned him. A Republican colleague called his decision “dumbass” on public radio. A New York Times profile featured disappointed quotes from everyone from his high school prom date to his former middle school principal. And Democrats, even those who, in the past, joined with Hawley on bipartisan measures targeting big technology companies, have not signed onto a single one of his bills since January, according to an analysis by the National Journal.
“It’s not like we have a personal animus,” explained Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat who will no longer work with Hawley or Senator Ted Cruz of Texas after their vocal objections to the election. “It’s really based on principle and policy that goes to the core of what our democracy is.”
A total freeze out from nearly half the Senate might raise the danger of being seen as unable to deliver for the voters back home. But in a world in which hundreds of Trump supporters mobilized to ransack the US Capitol, becoming a pariah inside its marble walls isn’t necessarily a political liability with the GOP grass-roots.
Hawley’s chilly reception in D.C. may effectively stop him from moving his own legislation for now, but it appears to have increased speaking requests from local GOP groups in Missouri, turbocharged his fund-raising, and upped his overall standing in a national party that still revolves around Trump. Those are all key metrics for someone who is widely believed to be a 2024 presidential hopeful — perhaps more so than a long list of bills signed into law.
“In the olden days when I was young, people cared a lot more about your ability to get things done or bring things home,” said John Hancock, the former chair of the Missouri Republican Party, who predicted no ill effects for Hawley of the Democratic freeze-out. “There were whole campaigns that were run on that back in the day. You just don’t see that anymore. I can’t tell you the last campaign slogan I’ve seen that said, ‘experience counts.’”
Gregg Keller, a GOP strategist and paid adviser to Hawley’s 2018 Senate run, said he believes criticism from the left or in the media just adds to the senator’s growing national profile among Republicans who are increasingly angry at both.
“Those kind of articles, those kind of efforts only help Josh burnish his bona fides with Republican primary voters,” Keller said.
Still, Hawley — whose brand of nationalistic, anti-Wall Street populism occasionally overlaps with the more pluralistic populism of his liberal colleagues — appears sensitive about the lack of Democratic co-sponsors. When asked about it by a Globe reporter as he was leaving the Capitol last week, he said he didn’t know whether it was true that none had signed onto his bills. “We’ll get you our list, we’ve got a bunch of bills, lots of people,” Hawley said, before closing his car door in the face of a follow-up question. His office later cited 13 bills that Hawley has signed onto as a cosponsor since January that include Democrats. None was his own legislation.
Democrats and Republicans point to different polls to argue Hawley’s standing has been hurt or helped in his state by becoming one of the faces of Trump’s attempts to stay in office.
A Morning Consult poll taken days after Jan. 6 in Missouri showed Hawley’s approval ratings slid 9 percentage points with Republicans in the aftermath of the riot, though he still remained more popular than his GOP colleague Senator Roy Blunt, who did not object to the election.
An anti-Trump group paid to post billboards around Missouri calling on Hawley to resign, with the words “you lied about the election” next to an image of his face. Other anti-Hawley political action groups sprouted up, vowing to take him down in the next election, and several corporate PACS announced they would no longer donate to him. His political mentor, former senator John Danforth, called supporting him “the biggest mistake of my life.”
“You don’t hear anything good about Josh Hawley in Missouri,” said Michael Butler, the chair of the state’s Democratic Party. “I haven’t heard anything good about Josh Hawley since Jan. 6.”
But a Missouri Scout poll touted by his campaign found 46 percent of Missouri voters approved of Hawley in late January, with his overall rating six percentage points above water, which is comparable to where he was polling before January. As the weeks wore on, local Republican parties around the country began voting to censure Republicans who supported impeaching Trump, and whatever energy there was in GOP establishment circles for punishing those who pushed electoral fraud claims petered out amid the fury of the grass-roots.
“I think Senator Josh Hawley’s gone from a liked conservative to being a rock star with Missouri Republicans in the last couple of months,” argued Missouri Republican strategist James Harris.
Harris said he heard some grumbling from “country club Republicans” about the image of Hawley raising his fist outside the Capitol. But to the state’s self-described “Trump Republicans” who are still angry about the election, that photo had an entirely different meaning.
“I could sell that photo of Josh Hawley and I could make thousands of dollars if I just went to Republican events around the state,” he said.
Nationally, Hawley appears to have boosted his profile even as he gets the cold shoulder from his liberal colleagues. Hawley has raised over $2 million since January, which includes funds from roughly 25,000 new donors, according to a source close to his campaign. That’s almost as much as he raised in all of 2020, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The Morning Consult poll also found his favorability rating rose 5 percentage points among Republican voters nationally after the insurrection.
Hawley is still relatively unknown: 6 in 10 GOP voters nationally say they haven’t heard of him, compared to just 27 percent who said the same of Cruz. But his high-profile election objections and the events of Jan. 6 appear to be changing that.
Trump named Hawley along with a few others in a recent interview as someone who represents the future of the Republican Party and would be a potential 2024 nominee for president if Trump doesn’t run. And Hawley received a standing ovation at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida last month when he mentioned his vote to object to the election — though he finished dismally in the group’s 2024 straw poll, which was dominated by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
While Hawley has denied he wants to run for president, his boosters see him as well positioned to carry Trump’s populist torch without Trump’s baggage. Educated at Stanford and Yale Law School, Hawley was Missouri’s attorney general before he was elected to the Senate. He makes a slightly more nuanced argument about the influence of China, trade deals, and what he portrays as the evils of the left than Trump does.
“Josh Hawley speaks very articulately about the same things [Trump] has talked about as concerns,” Harris said.
He gave a defiant speech at the CPAC gathering about attempts to “cancel” him, referencing Simon & Schuster pulling his book deal in January. (A different publisher signed him shortly after.) “We’re not going to back down to the woke mob,” Hawley said.
He portrays the left as “radical liberals” who are in alliance with corporations and calls for breaking up big tech companies — a position that puts him on the same page as Senator Elizabeth Warren and some other progressive Democrats. That’s led to some collaborations across the aisle in the past.
Late last year, he partnered with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont to push for larger checks to be included in the December COVID relief bill, with Sanders praising him for his efforts on the Senate floor. But after the insurrection, when Hawley floated the idea of requiring companies with more than $1 billion in revenue to pay a $15 minimum wage, Sanders and others on the left ignored it entirely. A spokesperson for Sanders did not answer the Globe’s request for comment on whether he would work with Hawley in the future.
Democrats back home smell blood in the water, even if Hawley’s allies brush off concerns about his standing in the increasingly red state.
“What are you able to accomplish and can we see and feel what you’ve done?” Rosetta Okohson, a Democratic strategist in Missouri, said voters will be asking of Hawley in a few years. “He has placed himself in a position where he is a pariah, where no one wants to be associated with him.”
Globe reporter Jess Bidgood contributed to this report.