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Vicky Hartzler hired Josh Hawley’s consultants. Will it help her become Missouri’s next senator?

·6 min read
Shelly Yang/

On August 26, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley called on President Joe Biden to resign over his handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The next day, so did Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler.

On September 28, Hawley called on General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, to resign during a Congressional hearing. The next day, so did Hartzler.

In October they both put out statements criticizing the Department of Justice over a memo asking the FBI to help address threats against school board members. In November, they both raised issues about the selective service (Hawley called for blocking a provision that would make women eligible for the draft, Hartzler called for abolishing the draft altogether).

It’s common for Republican politicians to put out similar statements about whatever topic is driving headlines in the Capitol. But for Hawley and Hartzler, their messaging may also look similar for an additional reason — they share a consultant.

OnMessage is the political consulting firm that has helped propel Hawley’s rise in politics, first with his race for Attorney General in 2016 and then his campaign for U.S. Senate in 2018.

Hartzler first met with the company in June, shortly after she announced her candidacy for U.S. Senate in 2022. By July, her campaign was using the firm for strategy, messaging and polling. It paid OnMessage $3,338 in September.

Most voters don’t pay attention to a politician’s consultants. Still, the choice can send a message in the so-called “shadow primary” where candidates compete for the attention of party donors and activists. Their hope is that it can help them build a base of support in the broader primary electorate.

In the crowded primary to replace Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, most of the focus has been signaling to get the support of former President Donald Trump, whose endorsement potentially holds considerable sway over the many Missouri Republicans.

Rep. Billy Long hired Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. Former Gov. Eric Grietens hired Kimberly Guilfoyle, who served as a Trump adviser and dates his oldest son.

While still taking up Trump on the campaign trail, Hartzler is also sending another message — that she’s tied to Hawley.

“To the extent that Josh is communicating to conservatives and certainly Missouri conservatives, yeah, we’re going to try to emulate some of that stuff to the extent that we can,” said Michael Hafner, Hartzler’s campaign manager. “But I’ll tell you, we don’t follow closely what he really does very much at all.”

The Hawley Endorsement?

Despite alienating some establishment Republicans in the state over his decision to object to the certification of Pennsylvania’s votes in the 2020 Presidential Race, Hawley remains popular among the Republican base in Missouri.

He’s crafted a policy position that fuses Trump’s populist appeals to a faith-based message that resonates with the religious right — particularly evangelical Christians. His loyalty to Trump, to the point where he objected to certification even after the Capitol was stormed by pro-Trump protesters, is an additional selling point for some.

“Josh Hawley is the most popular elected official in the state because he is taking on the Biden Administration and fighting for Missourians,” said Kyle Plotkin, a political adviser for Hawley and his former chief of staff. “He looms large in the Republican primary, and that’s why every candidate is consistently seeking his endorsement.”

Missouri Republicans insist that hiring the firm that guided Hawley’s rise won’t help Hartzler secure the senator’s endorsement. OnMessage may not help Hartzler any more than Axiom, the consultants behind Sen. Ted Cruz and Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, will help Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

Hawley was reticent to comment at the Capitol this week, saying he was keeping his options open about whether to endorse.

“I don’t have any thoughts on anybody’s campaign at this point, but I might,” he said before walking into the Senate chamber.

Senators have different approaches to endorsements. Some avoid them altogether while others try to back candidates in multiple races, hoping to win favor with potential new colleagues.

So far, Hawley has endorsed some like minded conservatives like J.D. Vance in Ohio, Herschel Walker in Georgia and Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania (though Parnell recently dropped out of the campaign after a judge found his estranged wife’s allegations of abuse credible and denied him custody of his children in a divorce hearing).

Hafner is adamant that the Hartzler campaign did not hire OnMessage for its connection to Hawley, saying he didn’t think the senator would endorse in the primary. Instead, Hafner said he considered OnMessage the best consultant to help Hartzler win, particularly because of their experience in Missouri and track record in other states.

The group’s clients also include Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida, who is also the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

James Harris, a Republican consultant in Missouri, said hiring OnMessage was “the smartest move Vicky Hartzler has made.”

“They’ve been through a lot of tough multi-candidate primaries where their candidate has prevailed and that is going to be, in this race, invaluable,” Harris said. “Vicky Hartzler probably, I think most polls starts off in either third or fourth place.”

Individual strengths

Hafner was quick to draw a distinction between Hartzler and Hawley, even as he noted that they may be touching on similar policy themes in Washington.

“We really don’t follow very much of what Josh is doing internally on the campaign,” Haffner said. “There might be things here and there that OnMessage forwards to us but I really have no idea if Josh is doing the same thing or not.”

Harris said replicating Hawley would be difficult to begin with.

“If Josh Hawley was the Varsity player, the current batch of candidates for U.S. Senate are either J.V. candidates or Freshmen,” Harris said. “That’s nothing against them, they’ll probably grow as candidates as they campaign. It’s just he’s head and shoulders above.”

Instead, Hafner and OnMessage are drawing on the credentials Hartzler has built up over her career in politics. She was first elected to the Missouri legislature in 1994 and served in the Missouri House of Representatives until 2000. In 2004, she was the spokeswoman for the Coalition to Protect Marriage, serving as a prominent voice in the successful campaign to add a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Missouri (the measure was voided by the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same same-sex unions nationwide).

She was elected to Congress in 2010.

“In this primary there are certainly some heavyweights and Vicky’s lane is that she’s a candidate from rural Missouri, obviously has an agriculture background, as a farmer and she’s a person of deep faith,” Hafner said. “And that’s unique to her in this current race.”

Those strengths overlap, particularly when it comes to how the candidates talk about faith. Both Hawley and Hartzler were speakers at a recent Family Research Council Conference. The Hartzler campaign is hoping that a similar coalition that helped elect Hawley could lift Hartzler, because of her credentials as a conservative.

“The type of voter who really likes Josh is the type of voter that would really lean toward Vicky,” said Brad Todd, a founding partner at OnMessage.

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