An early Obama endorser, McCaskill now faces a geographic conundrum. To win, she will need to run up the vote in the Democratic strongholds of Kansas City and St. Louis, where ties to Obama could be an advantage. But she cannot lose too badly in the rest of the rural state, where he is more likely to be a drag.
In 2006, McCaskill was able to lean on her time as a youth growing up in small-town Missouri to close the Republican margin in rural areas. Her performance there was the difference between her Senate win and her close loss in a race for governor two years earlier.
But Republicans say that her charm has worn thin outside Missouri’s big cities and that the strategy will be difficult to repeat.
Her solution so far has been to try to build credentials as an independent thinker and tireless worker. She lost 50 pounds in preparation for the reelection campaign, a physical reminder of her focus and grit that even some of her opponents concede.
As signs of her autonomy, she points to her efforts to get rid of congressional earmarks, her oversight of defense-contracting abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan and her co-sponsorship with Republican Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) of a 2010 bill to impose spending caps on the federal government that failed amid Democratic opposition. The attack on super PACs is part of that narrative.
“If the president were to come to Missouri — as I’ve asked him to do — he’d be the first one to tell Missourians that I can be a real pain,” she said.
Each of her Republican opponents says McCaskill has aligned herself too closely with major Democratic priorities to make the argument stick. She voted for the stimulus package, backed the bipartisan compromise to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and, notably, voted for the 2010 federal health-care overhaul, which is particularly unpopular in Missouri.
“McCaskill is still trying to convince people of how great this health-care bill is going to be for them. And people in Missouri don’t like it. They don’t want it,” said Steelman, who built a reputation as a feisty conservative crusader as state treasurer from 2005 to 2009.
McCaskill’s best advantage might be the split Republican field.
Several high-profile Republicans declined to enter the race, leaving her with three lesser-known opponents who could bloody one another in a primary race that will last far longer than the quick three-month general-election race that will come after.
That race has so far been relatively genteel, with the candidates working to separate themselves largely on issues of résuméand personality. Only Brunner, who has promised to devote his considerable personal wealth to the campaign, has run television ads, and they target McCaskill, not his GOP opponents.
“The candidates have been very polite,” said George Connor, a professor of political science at Missouri State University. “It hasn’t gotten to the level of ugly — but there’s a potential for it.”
At the end of a long day of campaigning this month, McCaskill was sitting in the back seat of a town car parked next to a Shell station in Kansas City when she noticed a young man approaching.
He had been quietly trailing her all day, whispering to a cameraman at his side as she toured a small-town factory, lurking in the back of the conference room when she met with business leaders at a local college.
Now he was headed toward her parked car, and she was worried. Among the first things that came to mind was all the super-PAC money being spent to defeat her and whether he was part of that.
“Does he want something?” she asked her driver, cracking her window open as the man approached.
“I don’t know who you are, but thank you for being here!” she trilled.
He said he worked for “GMMB” and he had just wanted to thank her for the day. Then he wandered off, his mission still a mystery.
It turned out the man was more likely friend than foe. GMMB is an ad agency that is generally hired by Democratic-leaning groups. But this is the new world super PACs have wrought: a stranger with a camera crew, shooting footage for an unseen boss to be used at an undefined time for an unknown purpose.
“It’s like shadowboxing,” McCaskill said, seated in the back of the car, heels off, massaging her bare feet. “You don’t know who it is that’s after you, why they’re after you. And you’ll never know.”
Polling analyst Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.