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Claire McCaskill and Josh Hawley spar in first Senate debate

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican opponent Josh Hawley faced off in their first debate Friday afternoon. The two spent much of the debate attacking each other, with Hawley finishing several answers by calling McCaskill a "Washington liberal" out of touch with Missouri values.

Both candidates emphasized their relationships with President Trump, with Hawley embracing Trump talking points on immigration and other issues, and McCaskill trying to assert her independence from both the president and the Democrats.

"I'm the only candidate in this race that has a proven track record of bipartisan accomplishments," McCaskill said.

"What Missourians want is a senator who hasn't forgotten where he's from," Hawley said in his opening statement. He accused McCaskill of being a partisan actor and an antagonist to Mr. Trump, who won Missouri by 19 points in 2016. McCaskill is considered to be one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in the Senate this year.

The two candidates sparred over topics such as whether they would confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, whether they support insurance covering patients with pre-existing conditions, and tariffs. McCaskill repeated throughout the debate that she had voted for two-thirds of Mr. Trump's judicial nominees, although not his previous nominee to the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch. McCaskill has not said how she will vote on Kavanaugh's nomination.

In turn, Hawley called out McCaskill for voting to confirm all of President Barack Obama's "liberal" judges, and disparaged what he saw as judicial activism.

"I'm concerned that judges too often impose their own values from the bench," Hawley said. "It's almost always the liberal, left wing, Hollywood media values that get imposed."

McCaskill slammed a lawsuit brought by Hawley, the state's attorney general and 19 other GOP attorneys general, saying it would strip away consumer protections under the Affordable Care Act. This claim has been rated as "true" by fact-checkers in Missouri, although Hawley repeatedly said that he supported health coverage for people with preexisting conditions.

"I will never support taking away health insurance for those with preexisting conditions," he said in the debate. 

But the GOP attorneys general are suing to have the ACA -- which requires coverage of pre-existing conditions -- declared unconstitutional, since the Republican-passed tax law included a provision that repealed the tax penalty levied on individuals who do not have health insurance. Because the penalty was removed, Republicans are arguing that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, and therefore, so is the health care law.

On tariffs, Hawley also sides with the president. "It's a trade war that China started," he said, adding, "If we're in a war, I want to be winning it." McCaskill's view is that the tariffs are not having the desired effect. "Hurting Missouri farmers and manufacturing is the wrong way to do it," she said of using tariffs to win the trade war. "Missouri agriculture is the most important part of our economy."

Hawley fought back by criticizing McCaskill's husband for not releasing his tax returns, although he did not say whether Mr. Trump should release his tax returns.

While Hawley tried to paint her as a swamp creature of Washington, McCaskill attempted to highlight her bipartisan accomplishments in the Senate.

"I will work with anybody, anytime if I can get something done for Missouri families, and the way you do that is by finding common ground," McCaskill said.

In his closing statement, Hawley said the Senate race was a "choice between the heartland way of life and a radical left-wing agenda."

The two candidates were joined onstage by Green Party candidate Jo Crain and independent Craig O'Dear, who is trying to attract votes from citizens tired of partisan gridlock in Washington.

  • Grace Segers

    Grace Segers is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.