ABOARD CLAIRE McCASKILL’S RV IN RURAL MISSOURI — Hurtling across the state in her generously equipped campaign motor home, Claire McCaskill is informed of a massive beetle crawling on her shoulder. She promptly flicks it off, locates it on the floor of the rattling vehicle and stomps it to death.
The moment is a perfect crystallization of the Democratic senator’s persona — and her advantages and disadvantages in one of the most hard-fought Senate races in the country this year. She’s a longtime politician with a posh condo and a private plane. But she also has a light “Missour-uh” twang, exudes a down-home style — and is more than willing to engage in vicious political combat.
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The question heading into her race against Josh Hawley, a top GOP recruit of 2018, is whether she’ll be the one doing the stomping, or the one getting stomped. The two, like many other candidates in competitive elections, are sparring over Obamacare, the Supreme Court, trade and Trump.
But the race in recent weeks has gotten personal, with Hawley challenging McCaskill’s authenticity and McCaskill casting her much younger opponent as an Ivy League-educated whippersnapper.
Hawley, the state’s attorney general, has been in politics for barely two years; at 38, he would be the youngest senator if elected. Much to her annoyance, he’s calling McCaskill a rich elitist who’s out of touch with her state and at home in the company of liberals — a “phony,” as Hawley puts it.
She is “pretending to be one of the people and then living completely differently,” he jabbed in an interview. To put a finer point on it, he challenged the senator to give up her family plane for a month.
McCaskill admits that Hawley’s messaging “bugs the hell out of” her. But she’s making no apologies for the plane, the RV or the condo, all of which Hawley is using to try to drive a wedge between McCaskill and the blue-collar Missourians who voted for President Donald Trump, at least some of whom she’s hoping to persuade to pull the lever for her.
“My husband has done exactly what you’re supposed to do in this country. He’s worked really hard, he’s created thousands of jobs and in the process, great wealth,” McCaskill said of her real estate developer spouse, Joseph Shepard, at the start of a 10-hour day aboard the RV. “I married a wealthy guy! And that somehow transforms me into a different person? It’s total bullshit.”
McCaskill believes Hawley’s focus on her family’s wealth and Shepard, who she married in 2002, is an attempt to distract from his lawsuit attempting to strike down Obamacare and its protections for people with preexisting conditions. The Republican, she said, doesn’t want voters to pay attention to how her centrist brand of politics contrasts with his hard-right views.
But McCaskill isn’t about to let Hawley attack her and her husband without hitting back at her Stanford- and Yale-educated opponent. She graduated from the University of Missouri, thank you very much.
“I’ve never left this state. I could have gone to a fancy law school. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay here, and I had to work my way through school as a waitress,” said McCaskill. “In 1995, when I got divorced, I made 65 grand a year and I had three children to support on my own.”
Hawley’s spokeswoman said he took out loans and received financial aid for his education at Stanford and Yale, and Hawley called McCaskill’s “fancy” diss a form of “soft bigotry” aimed at small-town America; Hawley grew up in Lexington, Missouri, an exurb of Kansas City. Nevertheless, McCaskill said he’d be a "terrible senator" because of his down-the-line conservative views.
The gulf between their generations and parties, combined with the battleground status of Missouri, helps explain the growing antipathy between the two rivals. The 64-year-old McCaskill came up in a Democratic Party in Missouri that favored moderation; by contrast, the Republican Party that Hawley is navigating has steadily purged centrists from its ranks over the past decade.
For someone ranked by OpenSecrets as the fifth-wealthiest senator, McCaskill is surprisingly informal. Staffers call her “Claire." She runs her own Twitter account and is rarely accompanied by aides in the Senate.
“Drives my staff crazy,” she said.
Sitting at the RV’s cramped dining table, McCaskill pored over news stories and talked strategy, peppering her thoughts frequently with swear words. Her rented campaign RV is nice enough, equipped with satellite TV for her sister to watch, if not especially glamorous.
An aide tapes shut a broken drawer. A sudden brake sends a tray of tacos flying onto McCaskill’s sister. A whiteboard keeps tabs on how many thumbs-up vs. middle fingers the vehicle receives. For now, thumbs-up is in the lead.
“I like campaigning. I like people. I like getting out. I like hugging strangers,” McCaskill said, comparing herself to Hawley, who she said “doesn’t appear to enjoy” the campaign trail.
Though Hawley mocks her self-proclaimed “moderate” profile, McCaskill has resisted her party’s leftward drift, at times awkwardly so.
She opposes liberal proposals like Medicare-for-all and the “dumb” idea of abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She takes corporate donations despite flak from activists. And when Democratic supporters invite her to criticize the president and his supporters, she instead defends Trump voters as “good, hardworking people.”
In 2016, thousands of Missourians voted both for Trump and Democratic Senate candidate Jason Kander, who narrowly lost. It’s those voters McCaskill must win over.
Liberals “want to hear me say something terrible about the president. And I’m just not gonna do that,” she said. “If I’m going to win this race, it’s because not only do Democrats want to support me, but there’s enough people in the state who realize that someone who’s willing to compromise … is better than just electing somebody who’s just going to be a party-line guy.”
Asked what the Trump administration is doing well, McCaskill points to the president’s support of the military. But she also criticizes his “incompetent” tariff regime and knocks the “president’s enthusiasm for Kim Jong Un.”
Contrast that with Hawley, who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — name a single thing about Trump that bothers him: “He’s doing a really good job.”
Hawley’s strategists say McCaskill isn’t doing enough to assert her independence to win. She should have supported more of the president’s agenda and fought her own party harder over the past two years, they contend, to adjust to the state’s Republican leanings.
Despite McCaskill’s occasional aisle-crossing, she voted against Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, CIA Director Gina Haspel, tax reform and Obamacare repeal. Those votes have given her significant cred on the party’s left flank, helping her raise more than $20 million through the end of June.
She’ll need every penny: The race is essentially tied, and Hawley presents the most formidable challenge she’s ever faced.
“She was extraordinarily fortunate [in 2012] to have a weak opponent. She doesn’t have a weak opponent this time,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who ran the GOP’s campaign arm in 2012. McCaskill intervened in the Republican primary that year to help Todd Akin win, then watched him self-immolate in the general.
McCaskill’s firecracker personality presents another contrast to Hawley, who is disciplined and on message. She’s quick on her feet and can’t help but tell suggestive jokes when prompted.
Asked about prescription drug advertisements, she vents about “the TV ads for the erectile dysfunction drugs where the couple is sitting in two bath tubs.”
“I’m going: ‘OK, what’s wrong with this picture?’ If you have erectile dysfunction, I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it in two bathtubs,” she cracks.
And in a stifling hot campaign office in her birthplace of Rolla, she drops a stemwinder before revealing how she did it without keeling over: “I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m standing right by the air conditioning vent. So I’m feeling guilty. And I’ve got this cold air blowin’ up," she said, catching herself before saying something inappropriate. "Well, just blowing up.”
Hawley calls it all “phony nonsense," noting she is a part-owner of Centrolina, a D.C. restaurant.
“She’ll shoot videos of her driving her car. She doesn’t drive. I mean everybody knows this. Her and the plane? We’ve got video of her on that plane; she uses it constantly,” said Hawley, dressed in a crisp white T and jeans for a July 4 parade. “She owns a condo and a restaurant in Washington for heaven’s sakes. Just own it. That’s who you are. But she won’t do that.”
An aide said McCaskill does drive at times when she’s in Missouri.
Though some Republicans dismiss talk of the plane as a sideshow — the race will come down to McCaskill’s “voting record” and “Missouri values,” said Republican state Sen. Mike Cunningham — Hawley said it’s an important part of his case against McCaskill.
“Look at how she lives, how she votes, how she acts,” Hawley said. “She talks as if she understands the state. But she doesn’t live it.”
In 2011, McCaskill paid hundreds of thousands in back taxes on a plane and was promptly tagged by Republicans with the nickname “Air Claire.” She sold that “damn plane,” though her family purchased another one. Now, McCaskill is under attack for using it between stops on another RV tour last month. But she said she won’t stop because it helps her more effectively traverse her state.
Polls show a neck-and-neck race, but if McCaskill thinks she’s in trouble, she’s not letting on. On one smoldering day on the trail in early July, she ended every event the same way.
“We’re going to Missouri now,” McCaskill said, doing her best impression of a news anchor on Election Day, after her race is called. “That Claire McCaskill’s done it again.”
Published at Tue, 10 Jul 2018 09:04:59 +0000