Democrat Claire McCaskill’s campaign RV rolls deep into rural, conservative Missouri.
She knows full well that it’s an uphill battle for her, or any Democrat, to do well in Republican Jasper County, but she is on the hunt for every possible vote she can find to send her back to the Senate.
“I mean, we’re realists about this. It’s not that anybody believes I’m gonna be able to win Jasper County, but you know what we can do? We can win a few more votes,” she acknowledges to a room of supporters.
“I’ve got news for you. It’s close,” she adds.
It’s closer than this two-term Senate Democrat would like, but in many ways it’s a political miracle that she represents this red state at all. President Donald Trump won Missouri by nearly 20 points in 2016, and Missourians have voted Republican in the last five presidential elections. McCaskill is one of only three statewide elected Democrats in the Show Me State. CNN rates the race a toss-up, the most competitive designation.
Trump looms large in the contest. McCaskill’s opponent, Josh Hawley, has closely aligned himself with the President and has made it his mission to paint McCaskill as a “liberal elite” working with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Hawley even has giant pictures of the three of them together on the side of his campaign bus. McCaskill’s “no” vote on Trump’s Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh has further fueled those attacks.
McCaskill is hoping to overcome that by emphasizing her ability to work across the aisle to get things done as a moderate.
“The middle is what the Founding Fathers wanted us to focus on. Compromise. That’s how you actually get things done, and that’s what we need more of, not less of, in Washington. They’re gonna get more partisanship if they send Josh Hawley. They’re gonna get less if they send me,” she said.
It’s a delicate balance for McCaskill – touting herself as a moderate while trying not to turn off the Democratic base in Missouri. She took that even further in a recent radio ad, which says she is “not one of those crazy Democrats.”
What did she mean by that?
“Well, the crazy Democrats are the people who are getting in the face of elected officials in restaurants and screaming at them. The crazy Democrats is whoever put a swastika on one of Josh Hawley’s signs in rural Missouri. That’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about, the extreme stuff,” McCaskill told CNN in an interview.
McCaskill first won her seat in 2006, when she benefited from a national Democratic wave that helped her party win back the majority in both the House and the Senate. She defied the odds again in 2012, beating GOP opponent Todd Akin after comments about women who were victims of “legitimate rape” not needing abortions derailed his campaign.
Hawley was elected Missouri attorney general just two years ago.
McCaskill, known for her blunt style, regularly launches one-liners aimed at the Ivy league-educated Hawley, who is 27 years her junior.
“I feel like Ronald Reagan, I don’t want to hold his youth and inexperience against him,” she tells the crowd here.
“He may be a Yale-educated lawyer, but I’m a Mizzou-educated lawyer and I can keep up,” she adds with a laugh.
The Kavanaugh vote
Hawley is seizing on McCaskill’s votes against both of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees – Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.
In fact, Hawley told us he thinks McCaskill’s “no” vote on Kavanaugh earlier this month could determine her fate, calling it “a very big deal” that he thinks will make all the difference for him on Election Day.
“I think voters are so appalled, just appalled, by the smear campaign,” Hawley said.
McCaskill says she voted no because Kavanaugh has supported unlimited campaign cash.
“I have to live with myself. And I would be a big hypocrite if I voted for Kavanaugh, because of dark money,” she said.
“I made my decision on Kavanaugh before the allegations even had really surfaced, way before the ugly confirmation process,” she added.
Missouri voter Steve Seaton agrees with Hawley. He attended one of McCaskill’s campaign events in Springfield, but he does not see himself supporting her on Election Day and says her Gorsuch and Kavanaugh “no” votes are a big reason why.
“I do not like the fact that she voted against those. The Supreme Court is supposed to be nonpolitical and you’re supposed to find the person who is qualified for the job. Brett Kavanaugh is a brilliant man. She voted against him for political reasons and voted right on party lines,” Seaton said.
Like many Democrats in tough races, McCaskill is trying to keep the campaign focused on health care and preserving Obamacare’s protections for pre-existing conditions.
“It may say Josh Hawley and Claire McCaskill on the ballot, but it’s really health care,” McCaskill tells voters.
Her opponent says he supports protections for pre-existing conditions too – but he’s also part of a lawsuit that could strike them down.
“He signed on to a lawsuit to get rid of every consumer protection in the law that you have against health insurance companies, including the most important one, the notion that you can still get insurance if you’d been sick before,” McCaskill said.
Hawley says Obamacare is not necessary to preserve coverage for pre-existing conditions, but McCaskill is hoping that voters in the state won’t see another option on the table from Republicans, and they’ll want to preserve the Affordable Care Act.
“They promised repeal and replace, and they did not have a replace that even Republicans would vote for, because every plan they had for replace was going to hurt you,” she notes.
The Trump factor
The President is turning up the heat on the issue of immigration, lashing out at Democrats about the group of migrants heading toward the US-Mexico border, and judging by McCaskill’s response, it could be working in states like Missouri.
In a news conference with reporters, she mentioned it, unprompted.
“The impression he’s giving Missourians that somehow, the Democrats are in favor of our border being overrun. I am not. I support the President 100% doing what he needs to do to secure the border,” she said.
McCaskill knows she has to align with the President on some issues and make an effort to connect with Trump voters she needs to win, and immigration is key.
Hawley will have not one but two visits from Trump in the next week. He argues that “the people of Missouri support his agenda.”
But McCaskill warns he will be a mere shill for the President.
“Will somebody who has said, ‘I disagree with nothing the President does,’ is that the person who is going to be in the middle? Trying to pull people in from the ends, trying to turn down the temperature and actually get work done? I don’t think so. I don’t think so. So I hope that you will spread that message,” she tells voters.
Hawley says he will always support what’s best for Missouri, not for the President.
When pressed to name any area where he disagrees with Trump, he searched for an answer and landed on runaway government spending.
“I don’t think he likes it, I don’t like it either and I would just encourage him to hold the line on that,” Hawley told us.
Although he was pushed to run by GOP leaders in Washington, Hawley takes a page from Trump 2016 and runs against the DC establishment.
“We don’t like the Washington establishment. We think that there needs to be a shake-up in both parties, and voters were very adamant about that, and this campaign is really about that,” Hawley said.
When Hawley ran for Missouri attorney general two years ago, he promised to fill out his term, a promise he broke by running for Senate this year. Some voters told us that give them pause about him. McCaskill is using it to paint him as an overly ambitious ladder climber.
“Yeah, yeah, it certainly wasn’t my plan, but I tell you what, I think the future of the country is at stake and the two words that sum that up for me are ‘Supreme Court,’ ” Hawley told us in an interview.
McCaskill first won elected office in Missouri in 1982 with a seat in the state Legislature. She was later elected Jackson County prosecutor and then state auditor. Her big loss, a 2004 run for governor, taught her a key lesson. She focused on Democratic strongholds, and not enough in rural areas. That’s why now she travels so aggressively in conservative areas like Joplin and Springfield, where we followed her around.
Rallying supporters gathered to help her get out the vote, the Democrat reminds them she’s beaten Missouri’s odds before.
“It’s going to be very, very close, but on that first Tuesday night in November, you’re going to have the TV on. You’re going to be in your pajamas. You may have had an adult beverage or two. But wherever you are, as you’re watching the results, at about 11:00 or 11:30 they’re going to say, ‘We’ve got a call to make. Let’s go to Missouri. That Claire McCaskill, she’s done it again,’ ” she says with a smile.