KANSAS CITY — It didn’t turn out to be the nail-biter that I thought it would be. Less than three hours after the polls closed in Missouri, incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) beat Republican challenger Rep. Todd Akin by a healthy margin after what she called “an extraordinary campaign.”
Or, as the tweets went, the voters in Missouri had a legitimate election to shut down Todd Akin. Those six seconds in August, when Akin made his infamous “legitimate rape” comment during a St. Louis television interview, may have cost him his bid for the Senate as Republicans from presidential candidate Mitt Romney to local Missourians abandoned him.
Missourians are an independent lot, though, and they proved it by splitting their ballots between Democratic McCaskill for the Senate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney for president and Democrat Jay Nixon for reelection as Missouri’s governor. The numbers tell just how many people switched sides: With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, McCaskill had 54.7 percent of the vote, Akin 39.2 percent and the Libertarian candidate Jonathan Dine 6.1 percent, while GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney had 53.9 percent and President Barack Obama 44.3 percent. Another way of looking at it: 400,000 more people voted for Romney than for Akin.
Lines were long for Missouri voters. Eileen Dreyer, an author who spent her fourth year as a poll worker this election in St. Louis County, said there was a line of people when she arrived at 5 a.m., and the average wait was an hour. “I can’t remember ever seeing such a wide diversity of people voting,” she told me. Turnout had been predicted at 72 percent for the race that had attracted national attention after Akin’s comment on rape.
When McCaskill took the stage at the St. Louis hotel to give her victory speech, she said, “There is one person missing and I just gotta tell you, Mom, this one’s for you!” Betty Anne McCaskill died Oct. 29 at the age of 84.
After thanking her family, campaign workers and supporters, McCaskill said, “Guess what, Mom, I think we finally won rural Missouri.” She was referring to her past failure to garner support in Missouri’s rural areas. Her elections have been won in Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia (home of the University of Missouri, where McCaskill earned her undergraduate and law degrees).
McCaskill called her mother “the sun, the moon and the stars” at the memorial service Sunday for Betty Anne, who was the first woman elected to the Columbia, Mo. city council, and who inspired her daughter’s political career.
Just days after her mother’s death, McCaskill returned to the campaign trail, telling supporters it was what her mom would want her to do. Last Friday, reporters tagged along as she knocked on doors in the Kansas City neighborhood that had sent her to the state legislature back in 1982, her first elected position.
She recalled how her parents helped her campaign in those days. They would take one side of the street while she did the other. And in those days, you knocked on every door, she told the young campaign workers accompanying her, instead of having a printout with addresses of supporters and undecided voters, determined by phone calls. In fact, she recalled it was 11,432 doors that she knocked on. “But who’s counting?”
When a group of pre-teen girls squealed with delight at the sight of McCaskill, she willingly posed for pictures. Then she signed a Captain America figure for the younger brother of one of the girls after someone found a Sharpie. “Who says this isn’t a well-oiled machine,” she laughed. She called out to the group, “I expect one of you to become president someday! And you, too, young man!”
McCaskill seemed cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the campaign that day, even though a recent poll placed her with 45 percent of the vote and Akin with 43, with a four-point margin of error.
I asked her what advice her mom would have given her on election night — with either outcome. “Keep it classy,” McCaskill told me.
And classy she was. Her campaign strived to show the differences between her record and Akin’s extremist views, rather than attacking personalities. Sure, she took advantage of his “legitimate rape” comment, running a series of TV commercials featuring Republican women who’d been victims of sexual assault — and who now supported McCaskill.
But I heard Akin speak, and his views were extreme. I heard him say the federal government shouldn’t be involved in student loans or the school lunch program. I heard him say there shouldn’t be a law setting a minimum wage or guaranteeing equal pay for women for equal work.
In one appearance last week, McCaskill said, “I honesty never thought I’d be in a race for the United States Senate (against) someone in Missouri who believed we should abolish the minimum wage.”
I was worried, though. At the last minute, Akin bombarded the local airwaves with three new television ads, one featuring former governor Mike Huckabee, and another one attacking McCaskill’s husband for allegedly making deals in the U.S. Senate dining room.
Women I knew told me they didn’t like McCaskill. At the beauty shop, in a scene reminiscent of the movie “Steel Magnolias,” one beautician told me she despised both McCaskill and Akin. “I’m not really voting for Akin,” she tried to explain. “I’m voting for the Republican party.”
A high school friend wrote me a two-page letter explaining why she was against McCaskill, citing her support of President Obama’s stimulus plan and the Affordable Care Act. Even though the National Journal ranked McCaskill in the middle between liberal and conservative Senators, many Missourians saw her on the far left.
But you never know what can happen in Missouri politics. As McCaskill told supporters in her victory speech, “They all said it’s over…it’s too red…there is no way that Claire McCaskill can survive.” She cited “stubborn determination, tenacity and a refusal to give up” as helping her prevail in the election.
Kind of makes you think of Harry Truman, doesn’t it? Well, that particular Senate seat used to be Truman’s. Then in 2000, Missourians, in a surprise move, elected a dead man — Mel Carnahan, who’d been killed in a plane crash while campaigning — over John Ashcroft to that same seat.
I wonder if Truman, Carnahan and Betty Anne McCaskill are smiling down on the newly reelected senator. (Well, some might wonder if Truman’s looking down or up….)
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Kansas City and a former editor of Missouri Life magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.