Before I could finish writing a piece examining Sen. Claire McCaskill’s position as a political moderate, Rep. Todd Akin made headlines again.
This time the Missouri Republican called his Democratic opponent in the race for the U.S. Senate “a wildcat” at a campaign rally in Rolla, Mo., and he later complained to a Kansas City Star reporter that McCaskill had been “much more ladylike” in her 2006 campaign.
Meanwhile, McCaskill has tried to make Missourians aware of her moderate stance. Most people wouldn’t brag about being ranked No. 50 for anything, but she has.
She’s parlayed that number as proof that she’s truly a political moderate in her quest for reelection.
The number comes from the National Journal’s annual lists ranking U.S. Senators from most liberal to most conservative and vice versa, based on their voting records. McCaskill has always fallen in the middle 10; this year she’s at No. 50 on the liberal list and No. 51 for conservatives.
Her rankings have been consistent, too: Every year since she was elected to the Senate, McCaskill has placed among the ten most moderate members.
McCaskill used the moderate rating as fodder in her television commercial during the first leg of her campaign against Republican challenger Akin. She’s even tweeted about the success of those ads, saying people greet her as “No. 50” in airports.
In their debate last week in Columbia, Mo., McCaskill hammered home the point that she’s a moderate as opposed to Akin’s far-right brand of conservatism. “I’m in the middle,” she said. “He’s far on the fringe.”
In a discussion of Akin’s now infamous comment about “legitimate rape” rarely causing pregnancy, McCaskill said, “I believe a rape victim should be allowed to have emergency contraception to avoid pregnancy. Todd Akin does not. I believe his view is extreme and out of the mainstream.”
“Right in the middle is right for Missouri,” she says as the tagline for her TV commercials, after talking about her support for a cap on federal spending, fewer regulations and a a ban on earmarks.
As an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated, “Missouri’s statewide electorate is fairly balanced. Its elected delegations should be, too.”
But is McCaskill really a moderate in the middle of the political spectrum?
“Objective measures of voting behavior put her in the middle,” said Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri. She’s “more liberal than Republicans but less liberal than most of her Democratic colleagues,” he told me.
She doesn’t necessarily vote along party lines, either. The Washington Post ranked her as the second-most-likely to vote against her party. Most likely was Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who’s not running for reelection.
“One of the things we have always admired about Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill is that she isn’t afraid to butt heads with her party and with President Barack Obama in backing her beliefs and what’s good for her constituents,” wrote an editorial writer in the Washington Missourian .
McCaskill opposed the president when it came to construction of the Keystone Pipeline, citing the need to keep energy prices low for Missourians.
She’s voted several times with Republicans on environmental issues. She’s also co-sponsored a number of bills with Republicans, such as the Earmark Elimination Act of 2011 with Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), and she supports a balanced budget amendment.
Although McCaskill has consistently proven her independence in her six years in the Senate, she distanced herself from the Democratic Party earlier this month. Don’t remember seeing her on the podium or in the crowd at Charlotte? That’s because she was watching the convention from Missouri.
But McCaskill did support both the Affordable Care Act and the 2009 stimulus bill. And that’s put her at odds with many Missourians, who see her as a staunch supporter of President Obama.
“Most partisans will identify just a few key votes and use them to characterize a lawmaker’s total record,” Squire told me. “McCaskill voted for the Affordable Health Care Act and, for many Republicans, that is all they need to know to call her a liberal.”
I think it’s tough to be a moderate in today’s political climate of extremes. (And yes, when asked about my political preferences, I generally give the short answer of moderate.) Both parties have moved further apart. Compromise has turned into a dirty word. You don’t hear about the efforts to “cross the aisle” that you once did.
Missouri’s become a state of contradictions as well. Once solidly Democratic, back in Harry Truman’s day, the state has shifted further and further to the right. Republicans hold the majority of seats in the state legislature, while the governor and many state officials are Democrats.
Missouri’s other U.S. Senator is Republican Roy Blunt, but he, too, ranks in the middle of the National Journal lists: 40th on the conservative and 61st on the liberal.
Although 35 percent of voters across the United States consider their views to be moderate, according to a Gallup Poll last year, that number has fallen from 43 percent in 1992.
The middle is not necessarily the easiest place to be.
But that’s okay for McCaskill. The middle is where she wants Missourians to see her.
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Kansas City and a former editor of Missouri Life magazine. Follow her on Twitter @dianareese.