Sen. Claire McCaskill doesn’t want to talk about Donald Trump.
The Missouri Democrat, up for reelection in a state the president carried by nearly 20 points, has had only one conversation with him. And as she gears up for perhaps the most difficult race of any Senate incumbent this year, she insists he won’t at all sway her strategy.
“I know that everybody wants to make this election about President Trump,” she told National Journal at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headquarters. “It’s not about President Trump for me in Missouri.”
McCaskill instead framed her campaign during the interview last week as a test of proving her independence in the Senate, where she has tried to cut a reputation as a centrist dealmaker unafraid to buck her party.
The two-term senator is expected to face Josh Hawley, the state attorney general whose meteoric political career began less than two years ago. McCaskill, who was elected to public office in 1982, is hoping that her long tenure in the spotlight will be an asset—especially on the heels of the sexual-blackmail scandal ensnaring the last political outsider to win in Missouri, Gov. Eric Greitens.
“It will be interesting to see if what has happened in Missouri within the Republican Party will have any impact on maybe reassuring voters that, ‘Hey, you know, we do kind of know her,’” McCaskill said. “A lot of them don’t like me, but at least they know me.”
McCaskill’s outside allies already see an opening, with Greitens now facing a indictment on a felony charge. The Democrats’ flagship super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, launched an ad earlier this month that links Hawley to Greitens, potentially foreshadowing the governor’s outsize impact on the race.
Regardless of the issue’s staying power, McCaskill knows she is in for a fight. Republicans count her seat as arguably their ripest target on the Senate map and are convinced she won in 2012 only because of her flawed rival.
That cycle, McCaskill famously meddled in the GOP primary to boost its weakest candidate, Todd Akin, who remarked that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy. This time McCaskill is unlikely to avoid Hawley, a consensus candidate among the GOP’s establishment and conservative wings.
But after notching unlikely victories in 2006 and 2012, McCaskill said she feels “very normal” about her standing at this stage in the cycle. She said she even makes light of her tenuous position with Senate Republicans’ most endangered member, Dean Heller of Nevada.
“He and I joke back and forth about being No. 1 and 2 on everybody’s most-vulnerable list,” McCaskill said.
Jokes aside, the former prosecutor and state auditor’s fundraising and travel schedule indicate how seriously she is taking the challenge. McCaskill, who spoke to National Journal in a DSCC call room, has emerged as one of the caucus’s best fundraisers this cycle, hauling in $2.9 million in the last three months of 2017.
She has also crisscrossed the state over the past year to hold 51 town halls, all but three of them in counties that Trump won. McCaskill said she infrequently received questions about Trump—with whom she has met only once, to discuss the tax bill.
Trump, for his part, has already pledged to help Hawley and is set to host a fundraiser for him Wednesday, one day after Hawley formally kicks off his bid. But Missouri Republicans say McCaskill’s problem runs much deeper than the president’s popularity statewide.
They accuse the incumbent of taking an overly partisan tack by failing to break with Democrats on issues including the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, the health care bill, and, most recently, the tax legislation. Americans for Prosperity has already shelled out $4 million to attack her and Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana for opposing the tax cuts.
“You just can’t be as far out of the mainstream ideologically compared to the voters of your state as she is and get reelected,” Hawley adviser Brad Todd said.
Still, Missouri has demonstrated an independent streak in past elections. Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander came within 3 points of unseating Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in 2016, even as Trump walloped Clinton. And Mitt Romney won the state by 9 points in 2012 as McCaskill was reelected.
Though Hawley appears likely to take on McCaskill, she long was expected to compete against Republican Rep. Ann Wagner, who surprisingly declined a Senate bid last summer. GOP officials in Washington at the time had grown excited by Hawley, and Missouri donors and Republicans, including former Sen. John Danforth, touted his political skill.
McCaskill said that treatment was “terribly unfair” to Wagner, whom she called a “respected leader in Congress.”
“I was shocked at how disrespectful the Republican hierarchy was to Ann Wagner,” McCaskill said, adding that the two did not discuss the topic.
In recent weeks, Hawley’s inability to keep pace with McCaskill in fundraising and a comment that linked sex-trafficking crimes to the sexual revolution stoked concerns in some GOP corners about his campaign, fueling chatter that Wagner could change her mind.
And one potential wild card in the race is independent Craig O’Dear, a wealthy attorney who told National Journal last month that he sees a “very even division” among Republicans and Democrats supporting him. In the 2016 election, O’Dear donated to politicians from both parties, including Clinton and Blunt.
McCaskill would not speculate on O’Dear’s possible impact. But as she girds for a difficult race, she maintained she does her best work as an underdog.
“I trust Missouri voters,” McCaskill said. “If they think it’s time for me to come home, so be it.”
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