JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill conceded defeat on Tuesday to state Attorney General Josh Hawley, handing Republicans a Senate seat President Donald Trump personally campaigned for twice in the week before Election Day.
Hawley, 38, tied his campaign closely to the president. During a speech to supporters gathered in Springfield, he thanked Trump for his leadership and "for believing in Missouri."
Hawley in his bid for the seat relentlessly attacked McCaskill as too liberal to represent the state. On Tuesday, he said the race was about "defending our way of life."
"What the people of Missouri said tonight is that they want a senator who actually stands with the people of Missouri, who represents our values and represents our voice and will fight for us in Washington, D.C.," Hawley said. "And I will."
McCaskill had long survived near-political death even though Missouri has recently trended Republican. She embarrassed Republicans in 2012 when she used what she called "reverse psychology" by running ads in the Republican primary decrying the conservative resume of the weakest candidate, former Rep. Todd Akin. He won and went on to lose to McCaskill in the general election after saying women's bodies can prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape."
Determined not to let her outfox them again, GOP heavyweights this election plucked the Ivy-league educated Hawley and cleared the field for him.
Unlike Akin, Hawley was less prone to political gaffes. He threw his support behind Trump's policies, while avoiding using or reacting to the president's incendiary rhetoric.
Hawley was the only statewide candidate in Missouri to receive more votes than Trump in 2016, when he won his bid for attorney general.
Missouri was once considered a bellwether state, but Republicans now control the state Legislature and almost every office. McCaskill is one of only two Democrats who currently hold statewide office.
McCaskill during a Tuesday speech to supporters gathered in St. Louis thanked voters for allowing her to serve a long political career. She joked that her mouth sometimes caused her trouble but said she actually tried to be careful about what she said.
"Not anymore," she said with a smile. "I will be out here fighting with you. I am not going away. I love this state and will continue to serve."
McCaskill presented herself as a moderate during more than 50 town halls held in Republican strongholds, noting that she voted with Trump nearly half the time in the Senate.
"He is Trump's guy, and I am not anybody except Missouri's guy, or gal I guess," McCaskill said during a Monday campaign stop in Columbia.
Hawley dismissed McCaskill's claim to be a moderate, hammering her on Senate votes against both of Trump's Supreme Court picks, his federal tax overhaul and other priorities.
He launched an ad criticizing the Democrats' handling of sexual misconduct allegations against Trump's Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh, making the Missouri race a barometer of the "Kavanaugh effect"— whether GOP voters would be more likely to vote after the attacks on the justice.
Columbia Republican Jimmy Reed, 67, said Trump's endorsement of Hawley motivated him to go to the polls Tuesday. He said the president deserves a chance to get things done, and he needs a Republican majority in Congress to do that, so he voted for Hawley.
"She may be somewhat moderate, but she's still a Democrat against the other side right now," Reed said of McCaskill.
Democrats had accused Hawley of going easy as attorney general on former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, who faced multiple political and personal scandals after media reported details about Greitens' extramarital affair in 2015 and his use of a charity donor list for his gubernatorial campaign.
That criticism of Hawley faded after Greitens stepped down in June.
Associated Press writers Jim Salter in Chesterfield, Missouri and Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, Missouri contributed to this report.