RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Missouri is going to be an interesting place to watch this midterm election season. The Democratic incumbent is Senator Claire McCaskill. And while many predict a big wave year for Democrats this year, McCaskill is seen as vulnerable because Donald Trump won her state by an unexpectedly easy 19 points in 2016. All of that means it's a place where NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea is going to be spending some time this year. And, in fact, he is there right now. Hi, Don.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: I am indeed. Greetings from St. Louis.
MARTIN: Greetings. So why are you in Missouri this particular week?
GONYEA: Just consider this an early check-in on this race. Senator McCaskill is a Democrat in a state that seems to be trending more conservative. Additionally, President Trump was here yesterday. The aircraft manufacturer Boeing has a big presence in and around St. Louis. He met with Boeing executives in promoting his tax plan, plus he attended a fundraiser for Attorney General Josh Hawley, who Trump has endorsed for Senate in the GOP Senate primary, which is in August.
MARTIN: All right. Josh Hawley. What can you tell us about him?
GONYEA: Well, remember in Pennsylvania in the special election, the president was grumbling that the GOP candidate was a lousy candidate, that that's why he lost? Republicans are confident you won't hear the same said of Josh Hawley in Missouri. Again, he's the frontrunner for the nomination, and he's 38 years old. He's already won statewide office as attorney general. So let me give you a taste from his first day of official campaigning earlier this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMALL TOWN")
JOHN MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Well, I was born in a small town.
GONYEA: So the event I attended was in one of those big, metal out-buildings on a farm about a half an hour outside St. Louis. John Mellencamp music was blasting. And, just like the song, the candidate talked about how he grew up in a small town. Hawley ticked off his conservative credentials, his Catholic upbringing, his opposition to abortion. He made a reference to coastal elites who see Missouri only as fly-over country. Afterward, though, during a scrum with reporters, we got a sense of how he might handle a race where voters' feelings about Donald Trump will be a motivating factor for a lot of them. First question to Hawley was whether Trump's low approval ratings could drag him down. He answered.
JOSH HAWLEY: You know, I'm delighted to have the president's support. I hope he'll be in Missouri often.
GONYEA: Next he was asked about the allegations of an affair between Trump and Stormy Daniels and a payoff to buy her silence. He dismissed the question right off, making a very quick pivot. Listen up.
HAWLEY: I don't know about that, but the president really, I think, gets why Missourians are concerned. He understands why Missourians are worried about the future of their families. They're worried about the future of their jobs.
GONYEA: Then another pivot to criticism of Senator McCaskill. But, I will tell you, it was not hard to find some respect for McCaskill even in this Republican audience. They don't like her policies. They may be angry over that vote against the Trump tax cuts. But, well, here's how 75-year-old Joe Tortorici (ph) put it. He was wearing a Make America Great Again hat.
JOE TORTORICI: She's an excellent politician. My concern is she'll come up with something at the last minute. She's a campaigner. But again, I'd never count her out.
GONYEA: Now, Tortorici also thinks Trump will be an issue, that Trump will motivate McCaskill voters to turn out, just like what happened in Pennsylvania in that special election.
MARTIN: And McCaskill's been around for a long time, and she's got some diehard fans, right? You spoke to some of them?
GONYEA: Yes. They were actually outside the Hawley event holding up anti-Trump and anti-Hawley signs. Let's meet one of them. Sheryl Hibbler (ph) is 63 years old, a retired social worker. She is a McCaskill volunteer who says she will put in hundreds of hours volunteering this campaign. I asked her about making Trump an issue, and she said she's not sure that's the way to go. She notes that the president is more popular here than he is nationally, even though that fact perplexes her.
SHERYL HIBBLER: Yes, yes. Well, you know, Missouri is the Show Me State, and maybe they feel like Trump can still show them if given the chance. But I think it's been obvious since he's been elected that he's not working for all the people.
GONYEA: And she says she thinks it's important to appreciate McCaskill's long record of public service.
HIBBLER: And the goodness and the quality and the skills that she has are what we need in this U.S. Senate.
GONYEA: That's what Hibbler says she thinks the focus should be on, maybe more on that than on an anti-Trump message.
MARTIN: Interesting. OK. NPR's Don Gonyea for us. Thanks, Don.
GONYEA: Lots more to come. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.