That public image recently took some heavy blows when Politico revealed that McCaskill used taxpayer dollars to pay for flights on a private plane owned by her husband and other associates and that the couple owed back taxes on the plane. She has reimbursed the Treasury more than $400,000, but the damage from the “Air Claire” debacle clearly jeopardizes her reelection.
Not surprisingly, Republicans are already criticizing her use of the plane. It is an issue that hits home with voters, and it undercuts the persona of government reformer that McCaskill, a former state auditor, has spent her political life crafting. Republican strategists say that the flap played directly into their hands because it bolsters their charge that McCaskill has “gone Washington” since voters elected her in 2006. The controversy also serves as a reminder that the best-laid reelection strategies can be undone by forces that have nothing to do with national political trends or controversial votes in Congress.
Brown, like McCaskill, sometimes has a rhetorically combative style. But where McCaskill takes aim broadly at partisanship and failures of government, Brown is a proud partisan, an avowed Democrat with liberal leanings. The Ohioan has backed a series of measures to extend unemployment benefits during the economic downturn, casting the extensions as crucial support for millions of economically ailing Americans. McCaskill has voted to extend jobless benefits but has also joined with other fiscal conservatives in questioning how long the government can provide the benefits without effectively creating a new entitlement program.
The Ohioan, meanwhile, sharply criticizes Republicans’ economic policies—in particular, the push for dramatic cuts in discretionary spending. Doing so would cost jobs and slow economic growth, Brown argues. “The debate on the budget for the next year offers a clear contrast between the two parties. We need to make cuts; we’ve proposed ways to reduce the deficit, like eliminating $20 billion in handouts to oil companies that make record profits,” he told reporters. “Why not eliminate subsidies for Big Oil? Why not eliminate tax giveaways for companies that ship jobs overseas? With those two actions alone, we could reduce the deficit by $40 billion.”
Brown has also waded into the fights between unions and GOP lawmakers in Ohio and Wisconsin, taking a position that could figure prominently in his reelection campaign. “We as a country, we stand for a more egalitarian workforce,” he said on the Senate floor in early March. “We stand for workers’ rights. We believe workers should organize and bargain collectively if they choose. We believe in a minimum wage. We believe in workers’ compensation. We believe in worker safety. We believe in human rights. And all of that is about the labor movement.” His penchant for antagonizing Republicans can sometimes get him in trouble, however. In the same speech, Brown invoked Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin—likening their opposition to labor unions to the GOP’s efforts to restrict collective-bargaining rights. He later apologized for those references.
In Ohio, the renewed focus on labor could prove potent in 2012 elections. The Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature have moved to reduce the bargaining rights of the state’s public employee unions. On Capitol Hill, Republicans have invigorated efforts to push the Obama administration to finalize stalled trade pacts with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia. Collective bargaining and trade have the potential to mobilize voters in Brown’s economically hard-hit state. In 2006, 28 percent of voters came from union households, and they voted 68 percent to 32 percent for Brown.
However, Ohio’s free-trade skeptics have been willing to vote for Republicans, as well. In 2010, 66 percent of state voters said they believed that the North American Free Trade Agreement cost jobs, but in the Senate race, they supported Republican Rob Portman—a former U.S. trade representative, a NAFTA supporter, and a staunch free-trade advocate—by 58 percent to 37 percent over Democrat Lee Fisher. Part of Brown’s task ahead is to persuade those voters to return to his fold.
Brown played a critical, albeit eventually fruitless, role during Washington’s climate-change negotiations in 2009. To secure the votes of a bloc of Midwestern lawmakers, he tried to wring concessions from the Obama administration and Boxer on amending the legislation to add greater protections and incentives for manufacturing jobs. The momentum fizzled on the Hill, however, and voters proved hostile to the politics of climate change, last year electing a wave of GOP lawmakers who openly question the science behind it.
Mindful of that hostility, Brown is now a leading voice among Senate Democrats urging the Obama administration to slow the pace of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions. Not incidentally, those rules could have a particularly damaging effect on jobs in his coal-dependent home state.