Back in January 2008, when most of the Democratic establishment was betting on Hillary Rodham Clinton for president, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was one of the first in her party to endorse her friend Barack Obama. The bold move put the spotlight on the feisty freshman from the Show Me State—and cemented her status as a rising star in her party.
But now, as both Obama and McCaskill face reelection, the senator’s fate depends on whether she can convince Missouri voters that while the president can count on her friendship, he can’t always count on her political support. Obama stands little chance of winning in Missouri, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1996. So for McCaskill to keep her job, she’ll have to persuade a segment of independent Missourians to vote a split ticket—an increasingly hard sell.
Although McCaskill, a former state auditor, came into office in 2006 as part of the wave of Democratic backlash against President Bush, she only narrowly defeated GOP Sen. Jim Talent, in part by campaigning against his cozy ties to Bush. Now she’s the incumbent who gets warm welcomes at the White House—and Republicans know it. As American Crossroads spokesman Nate Hodson put it, “There’s plenty of footage of Claire McCaskill and Barack Obama on stage with thumbs up.”
“She’s defined the narrative,” notes National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Lance Trover. “She’s an incumbent, and it’s a referendum on her record.” Officially, McCaskill won’t have an opponent until August’s Republican primary. None of the GOP picks—Rep. Todd Akin, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, and John Brunner, a largely self-financed St. Louis businessman—has emerged as a front-runner, none has a national profile, and McCaskill is crushing them in fundraising. She’s hauled in $9.6 million during this cycle versus $2.6 million for Brunner, who’s raised the most in the GOP field.
Still, McCaskill’s high visibility and vulnerability is also attracting plenty of outside spending on the other side. National Republican campaign committees and deep-pocketed super PACs, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-linked American Crossroads, have already spent an estimated $4 million on television ads attacking McCaskill—chiefly by linking her with Obama and noting her support for two of his signature measures, the health care and economic-stimulus acts. Other lines of attack include reviving the controversy of “Air Claire.” Last year, it was revealed that the senator’s office used taxpayer money to fund her use of a private airplane she co-owned with her husband and friends. She ultimately reimbursed the U.S. Treasury $88,000, but the episode gave a black eye to a candidate who has tried to build a record on fighting for government fairness and transparency. More recently, Republican groups have slapped her with the label “Chameleon Claire”—a slam on her efforts to move away from Obama and the liberal Left as they become unpopular among Missouri voters.
In her own first television ad, titled “From Here,” McCaskill took aim not at any one Republican, but at the outside conservative groups. “They’re not from around here. Spending millions to attack and attack. But what they are doing to Claire McCaskill is nothing compared to what their special interest agenda will do to you,” intones the ad, alternating between shadowy images of men in dark suits and shots of McCaskill meeting with constituents.
McCaskill is also trying to make the case to Missouri voters that in Washington, she’s a walk-alone independent who, while friends with the liberal-leaning president, is unafraid to break from her party in the interests of her more conservative state.
“The most important thing I have to be in this election is authentic,” McCaskill told National Journal Daily. “In Missouri, no matter what position you take, 30, 40, 50 percent of the people are mad at you. I’ve got to focus on making sure Missourians appreciate my independence, know it’s real, and let the chips fall where they may.”
One crucial issue on which McCaskill wants to show distance between herself and Obama is energy. In March, Senate Democrats brought a series of high-profile, controversial energy bills to the floor for votes. The bills had no chance of passing, but the votes created an opportunity for vulnerable red-state incumbent Democrats like McCaskill to oppose Obama’s positions on energy. She broke with her party to vote in favor of a bill expediting the Keystone XL oil pipeline and to delay an Environmental Protection Agency regulation cutting mercury emissions from coal-fired industrial boilers.
McCaskill has also broken with Obama on closing military bases under the Base Closure and Realignment program. Missouri has three bases and McCaskill, a member of the Armed Services Committee, has defended keeping them open. She’s also reminded voters that her father was a World War II veteran, and her strength on military issues has brought her the backing of the advocacy group VoteVets.
There is one element of the traditional Democratic platform that McCaskill is hewing to firmly: As the first woman elected to the Senate from Missouri, McCaskill has fought hard for access to contraception. In her largely Catholic state, the flare-up over women’s health and reproductive issues and the perception of a Republican “war on women” could work in her favor. Both sides are homing in on the groups that could tip the balance in their favor: While urban voters in Kansas City and St. Louis tend to vote for Democrats, and rural voters tend to vote for Republicans, campaign operatives say the outcome of the Senate race will probably be determined by suburban and exurban voters outside those two cities—and whether or not they’re willing to vote a split ticket.
The National Journal Big 10 is our look at the most pivotal Senate races. We’ll be checking in with them throughout the campaign. The list currently includes Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin—although it may change as the campaign unfolds.
This article appears in the April 23, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.