In the Senate, Brown and McCaskill voted similarly on many of the defining pieces of legislation in their first term: They both supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $800 billion economic-stimulus package, and the health care overhaul. Their Republican opponents will surely try to use those votes against them in 2012.
A closer look at their records shows that the lawmakers frequently split on economic matters, on votes related to the size and scope of the federal government, and on Congress’s authority to spend. Last year, McCaskill voted to cut federal spending and establish statutory discretionary spending limits, and she has been a lonely Democratic advocate of a ban on earmarks. She has opposed efforts to tighten leverage and liability limits for bank-holding companies and other financial institutions. Although she opposes tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, McCaskill has been generally wary of tax increases.
On domestic issues, she has taken a tough stance on illegal immigration, voting to deploy troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and to ramp up spending for border security. She opposed a 2007 bill that would have created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. McCaskill has also been hawkish on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, often siding with Republicans on funding and timetables. She has generally acknowledged the existence of global warming, but she assiduously avoided taking a position during the debate on the ultimately unsuccessful climate-change bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. McCaskill has since avoided reporters’ attempts to question her on climate change.
But as much as the policy stances matter—and they do—much of McCaskill’s case to voters relies on personal factors, which is why the plane controversy is so potentially damaging. She is an aggressive and skilled communicator who has worked hard to couple her folksy, down-home Missouri image with media savvy and a bold edge. She has cultivated a Twitter following in part because she personally knocks off her 140-character messages, instead of leaving that task to her aides, as most other lawmakers do. She is attentive and engaging with constituents across her state, particularly in rural areas where her path to victory may rest.
In the Senate, McCaskill relishes taking an independent course. In February, she locked arms with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to introduce a bill to reduce total federal spending—both discretionary and mandatory—to a target of approximately 20.6 percent of gross domestic product, the historical average of federal spending. She is the only Democrat to sign onto the bill; in a floor speech, she conceded that the move was politically risky.
At a press conference announcing the legislation, McCaskill embraced her single-mindedness. “I believe that the biggest issue that faces our Congress right now is how do we get our fiscal house in order over the next decade,” she said. “And I am going to work—and I can be really obnoxious—with my colleagues, trying to get them to see the light.” Corker told National Journal that he asked McCaskill to join his legislative effort because she has shown sincerity on fiscal issues. Noting her earlier bipartisan efforts with Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Corker said, “I have found her to be someone who really wants to deal with the spending issues, and I sought her out for that reason; I know that she’s worked with people on both sides of the aisle to pass those issues.”
McCaskill’s relationship with the president is sure to be a factor in her campaign. She was one of the first senators to endorse Obama in 2008. Although the Missouri Democrat has distanced herself from him in recent months on spending cuts and on legislative efforts to allow some people to opt-out of the health care law’s mandate, her opponents are sure to highlight her friendship with the president.
Obama’s endorsement of her at a St. Louis fundraiser in 2010 offered the kind of rhetoric opposition ads are made of. He praised “my dear, dear friend Claire McCaskill,” and said, “I love Claire McCaskill. Love, love Claire McCaskill!” Still, the president and the senator are very different types. Obama has been criticized for sometimes taking a highbrow tone with voters; McCaskill, by contrast, has had a way of putting issues in everyday terms. After Obama admitted to using “poor syntax” in the 2008 campaign in comments he made about guns and religion, McCaskill chided the candidate because “where I come from that’s the tax you have to pay on beer.”
From her perch atop a subcommittee with oversight over government contracting, McCaskill has aggressively examined the federal government’s multibillion-dollar contracting process. It’s a role that tends to earn critics inside the Beltway, but it doesn’t necessarily get noticed or deliver results back home. Her oversight work had, however, helped to build her bona fides as a good steward of the public purse.