Missouri Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley may be the strongest defender of conservatism to appear on the statewide ballot.

The 38-year-old Constitutional lawyer represented Hobby Lobby at the Supreme Court when the Christian, family owned company objected to Obamacare’s mandate that health insurance plans cover abortifacients.

Hawley makes the case that the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion is the right that “undergirds all our other rights.”

“I think religious liberty is the foundation for all our other liberties because it tells the government where the line is,” Hawley told me in a wide-ranging interview on Monday. “Religious liberty is that liberty that says, ‘Government, you can’t tell us what to think. You can’t tell us what to believe. You can’t tell us how to worship. You can’t tell us who we can gather and worship with.’ It’s that red line that you may not step over this boundary.”

Last week American pastor Andrew Brunson was released from Turkish prison. Brunson was imprisoned for more than two years on bogus charges. Hawley called his release a “huge win for the United States and President Trump,” noting the president’s refusal to bargain was paramount. It’s an issue not only in Turkey but, as Hawley added, one that is worse in Iran.

Hawley’s race on Nov. 6 against incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill could not offer a more stark contrast. Polls show him with a slight lead that is trending up. Missouri’s contest could be pivotal in the balance for power.

“Our way of life is at stake here in this state and this part of the country that we don’t have much time left to save this country,” Hawley said. “I really believe that’s what this race is about.”

The top issues: Judges, immigration and health care.

Judges, immigration

Hawley said he would support pro-Constitution justices on the bench. McCaskill has voted for some of President Donald J. Trump’s lower court nominees, but on the two biggest — Justices Niel Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — she opposed. McCaskill also voted against President George W. Bush nominee Justice Samuel Alito but in favor of 100 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees, including Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

When it comes to the big issues, McCaskill is no moderate. Her American Conservative Union score during her time in the Senate is 11.45. Compare that to Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri’s Republican senator, who has a rating of 86.59. And Missouri is a state that supported Trump in 2016 by an 18.6 percent margin.

In contrast, Hawley is a Constitutional conservative.

“I base my votes and judgment on judicial philosophy,” Hawley said, noting the importance of having conservative judges not only on the Supreme Court but the lower courts as well. “As a Constitutional lawyer myself, I want to know how that judge interprets the Constitution and our laws.” For Hawley, it comes down to whether a judge will interpret the Constitution as written.

On immigration he said securing the border is the top priority, noting our immigration policy should benefit American workers.

“Getting an immigration system that follows the law and works for our workers, works for American workers, Missouri workers. It’s a huge contrast between myself and Senator McCaskill,” Hawley said.

Health care, attorney general

Hawley filed a lawsuit along with 20 other state AGs to repeal Obamacare. He said he wants pre-existing conditions covered by insurance but that it should be done via free-standing legislation.

When I further pressed him on the question on why he didn’t sever pre-existing conditions from the lawsuit, Hawley said Democrats have argued in court that it wasn’t possible.

As Missouri Attorney General Hawley points to three signature achievements. 1) His lawsuit filed against Big Pharma in the opioid crisis. 2) His challenge against Big Tech, including Google and Facebook. “Big tech companies have unprecedented power in our market. They have unprecedented personal information, and they have got to be held accountable.” 3) Human trafficking. Hawley points to uncovering 13 businesses in Missouri posing as fronts for trafficking.

Taxes/trade

Yet another major difference between Hawley and McCaskill is on taxes. Hawley points to the wage growth workers are seeing under this administration.

“Under President Trump, American families are seeing benefits and wage growth at a decade high, middle class incomes rising, blue-collar job growth at its highest rate since 1984, and unemployment at its lowest level in decades,” Hawley said. To contrast, McCaskill opposed the president’s tax cut bill, something which has clearly been a major benefit to the country’s 4 percent economic growth.

Hawley has proposed reforming the Earned Income Tax Credit to give workers making below the median wage a work credit.

“For example, a wage subsidy of half the difference between a worker’s hourly wage and the median wage would add roughly $4 per hour to the paycheck of someone currently earning $10 per hour,” Hawley later followed up with me in an email. “The benefit would come to them in each paycheck, instead of at the end of the year as a tax rebate like the current system, and it would increase wages without the harmful effects and unintended consequences of an across the board minimum wage hike.”

On trade, Hawley supports the president’s work to make better trade deals with other countries. Poplar Bluff steel company Mid-Continent has been hit hard in the trade battle. Hawley said they make a good case for a tariff exemption but that Mid-Continent’s parent company in Mexico also has a role to play.

“I’ve met with Mid-Continent, their workers, and their local leaders. The company is actually owned by a large Mexican conglomerate, however, so I went to the source. I wrote and called the CEO of the company, Deacero. I reminded him of the money Deacero has made off the workers in Poplar Bluff and his pledge to support the people of that community. I hope and expect this Mexican company, which has brought in millions upon millions in revenues and has made a handsome profit on Mid-Continent, to demonstrate corporate responsibility and keep their commitment to the people of Poplar Bluff.”

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Semissourian