wpostServer: http://css.washingtonpost.com/wpost

Can Claire McCaskill weather her plane problem?

at 07:39 AM ET, 03/22/2011

Sen. Claire McCaskill’s admission that she owes nearly $300,000 in back taxes on a plane she co-owned with her husband is the latest in a series of revelations regarding the aircraft that have complicated the Missouri Democrat’s already-difficult path to reelection in 2012.

The tax revelations come roughly a week after McCaskill acknowledged using the plane for both official travel and purely political business while charging taxpayers for the flights.

While McCaskill has reimbursed the government for the trips and self-reported the back taxes after an extensive internal audit of all 89 flights on the plane, it’s not clear whether that will be enough for her to weather the controversy.

The optics of the story are bad for McCaskill. Owning a private plane — a luxury most Americans only dream about -- is one thing. Not paying taxes on it are another. Add to that potent political mix the fact that McCaskill has built her reputation both in Missouri — where she served as state Auditor — and in the Senate as an advocate for greater government transparency, and the depth of the problem becomes clear.

Republicans have pounced, calling on McCaskill to release detailed information about every flight she took on the plane; “This raises very serious questions for Sen. McCaskill’s re-election bid, because if there are two things voters don’t like, it’s a hypocrite and a tax cheat, and Sen. McCaskill just admitted to being both,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Rob Jesmer.

So can McCaskill, already a major target for Republicans in the Show Me State, survive in 2012?

Most Democratic strategists believe she can — although to a person they acknowledge the difficult position McCaskill has put herself in as a result of the plane controversy. The reason for optimism in Democratic circles about McCaskill? Her political brand, plus time.

“Most politicians couldn’t survive it,” said one senior Democratic strategist familiar with the state’s politics. “She can, because of the brand she has built.”

That brand, of course, is built on transparency, as well as stamping out fraud in government. (McCaskill was installed as chair of a Homeland Security subcommittee aimed at overseeing government contracting for just that reputation.)

Allies of McCaskill add that McCaskill has largely self-reported the problems with the plane and her back taxes, which is consistent with the image she has built in the state.

The second — and perhaps more powerful — reason that Democrats remain somewhat optimistic about McCaskill’s reelection is that the election is still almost 20 months away. “It’s a long way to Tipperary,” said one Democratic consultant who has worked extensively in the state.

And one only needs to think back to the 2010 re-election victory by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R), who acknowledged his involvement in a prostitution ring in 2007, for evidence that voters’ tend to have relatively short attention spans.

McCaskill should benefit, too, from what looks likely to be a real primary fight between former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, former U.S. House candidate Ed Martin and possibly Rep. Todd Akin.

There is then a case to be made for how McCaskill weathers this political storm. The bigger question may well be whether she wants to spend the next 20 months in what now promises to be an intensely personal campaign in which she — and her husband’s — finances will almost certainly take center stage.

DCCC goes after Republicans on entitlements: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is launching a paid media campaigns in 10 districts this morning hitting Republican members for supporting cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Newspaper ads, automated phone calls, live phone calls, and emails will target Reps. Paul Gosar (Ariz.), Bill Young (Fla.), Allen West (Fla.), Dan Benishek (Mich.), Joe Heck (Nev.), Lou Barletta (Pa.), Blake Farenthold (Texas), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Sean Duffy (Wis.) and David McKinley (W.Va.)

Ryan, the GOP’s Budget Committee chairman, has said that the Republican budget will include cuts to the entitlement programs. But those kinds of cuts poll very poorly, and it’s a pretty easy campaign issue for Democrats.

Romney and Pawlenty weigh in on Libya: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) said Monday that he supports military action in Libya, but he joined with Republicans and some Democrats in questioning the endgame for President Obama.

“I support our troops there in the mission that they’ve been given,” Romney said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show. “But let me also note that, thus far, the president has been unable to construct a foreign policy -- any foreign policy. I think it’s fair to ask, you know, what is it that explains the absence of any discernible foreign policy from the President of the United States?”

Meanwhile, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who launched an exploratory committee for a presidential run earlier Monday, said Monday night on Fox News that the no-fly zone should have been instituted weeks ago when he first called for it.

“We have a situation where I called for a no-fly zone, I think one of the earliest, maybe the earliest person to do it, some weeks ago,” Pawlenty said. “The rebels at that time were on the verge of overthrowing Gaddafi. They had the momentum. They were in position to do it.”

Most of the criticism of Obama’s supposed lack of a plan has come from the right, but it’s also come from sources like Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a former Navy secretary.

The way forward for Allen West: Things were never going to be easy for Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) in 2012. He’s a lightning rod, he already represents a Democratic-leaning district, and his district seems likely to get more difficult after redistricting.

Considering all those things, it wasn’t a hard decision for West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel (D) to jump into the race against West on Monday.

The hardest decision may be West’s. Depending on how redistricting changes his district, West’s district could be virtually unwinnable — or at least very tough — two years down the line. Perhaps that’s why, in a video posted Sunday by the Shark Tank, West seems to be open to talk about moving up the ranks.

“That place that I need to be is in the United States House of Representatives,” West says in the video. “If God be willing, certain things will happen in the future, but for right now there is a fight going on in your House — in the people’s House.”

West, of course, needs to say that he is committed to his district right now, because he’s only been in the seat less than three months. But he doesn’t sound like someone totally devoid of higher ambition.

Chinese Professor ad back on the air: Citizens Against Government Waste is re-launching a powerful ad featuring a futuristic Chinese professor talking to his students about the downfall of the United States.

A source says it is a multi-million dollar ad buy, and the ad will run on CNN, Fox News, Headline News, CNBC, The Weather Channel and AMC, as well more broadly in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin

The online version of the ad has nearly 1.6 million hits on YouTube.

Walorski to run again: Former Indiana state representative Jackie Walorski (R) has announced she will run again for Rep. Joe Donnelly’s (D-Ind.) seat.

Walorski narrowly lost to Donnelly in November and should have a much better chance after redistricting. The GOP controls the process, and Donnelly’s district can be made more Republican with relative ease.

With that in mind, Donnelly is also looking at running for Senate in 2012.

Fixbits:

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) has a book coming out this fall, but he says it doesn’t mean he’s running for president (as it often does).

Not exactly a lot of love between Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R).

Newt Gingrich will be back in New Hampshire on April 4.

Must-reads:

A perfect GOP candidate is hard to find” — AP

Sharron Angle meets the press in Reno in call for ‘mutual respect’” — Ray Hagar, Reno Gazette-Journal

Haley Barbour may try to rewrite the script for 2012 presidential race” — Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

 
Read what others are saying