WARRENSBURG, Mo. — Only a handful of President Trump supporters showed up to Sen. Claire McCaskill’s town hall here in rural Missouri, but they definitely made their presence known.
One arrived early so he could park his red Dodge pickup with its “Make America Great Again” and “Don’t Tread on my Gun Rights” stickers directly in front of the American Legion hall’s entrance, where nobody could miss it. Another, a squat man with a graying goatee, volunteered for the task of plucking written questions for McCaskill out of a basket; he screened out anything less than a zinger and gave the first series of questions to Debbie Phillips, a 65-year-old Republican in a cropped white denim jacket who wasn’t afraid to stand up in a packed room full of Democrats to voice her displeasure.
“All I’m hearing on TV is that because I’m a white conservative woman, I’m a racist, a white supremacist and a neo-Nazi,” she said. “Somebody besides me has to be sick of this.”
The crowd booed, but McCaskill wasn’t here to go head-to-head with Trump supporters. She was here to try to win them over.
“First of all, let me say,” McCaskill responded, her voice made tinny by the microphone, “I don’t think anybody in this room thinks you’re a racist. If you’re being stereotyped that way that’s just as unfair as stereotyping every black person as a terrorist for Black Lives Matter.”
The senator swayed on the stage, her long cardigan coat flowing behind her, as she made direct eye contact with Phillips through tortoiseshell glasses. “I can assure you,” she said, “there is stereotyping going on, on both sides.”
Since joining the Senate a decade ago, McCaskill has been known as one of its most quotably outspoken Democrats, but in her conversations with voters this day, she doggedly rode the median: People who deface statues should be prosecuted. Single-payer health care is a bad idea, and so is trying to impeach Trump, even if he had recently suggested that protesters standing with Nazis and white supremacists were “very fine people.”
“My job is not to fight the president,” she has been saying at town halls all over the state this summer. “My job is to fight for Missourians.”
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This is what it’s like being a moderate in immoderate times. After Trump’s election, populists in McCaskill’s party tried to grab the wheel and pull hard to the left. It was Bernie Sanders’s party now, they said, and good riddance to the insiders and horse-traders. Prominent Democrats started cursing in speeches, trying to harness the fires of liberal outrage that the president has been all too glad to splash with gasoline.
And yet here was McCaskill, the most endangered Democrat in the Senate, for whom “resistance” politics are a liability. A Democrat in Trump Country, the Missourian represents the oft-forgotten flank of the party’s two-year battle to reclaim Congress. To hold the line, she is running as an experienced politician who, she’ll have you know, has been ranked as the least ideologically pure.
This approach makes her seem like a relic of a long-gone Washington, where flexibility and the art of reaching across the aisle were desirable traits in an elected official. Nowadays, seeking the middle can make a politician — even one introduced at all her town halls as “the most candid member of the Senate” — appear unwilling to take tough stands.
On this day, for example, hours after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for Confederate statues to be removed from the Capitol, McCaskill wouldn’t say whether she agreed.
“I think Nancy Pelosi should decide who the statues are for California,” she said when asked by a reporter. “That’s a decision each state has to make.”
So what about monuments in Missouri?
“I think it should be up to each local community,” she said.
Is there a moral argument to keep them up or take them down?
“I understand why they cause pain,” she said. “I also understand why we always have to be reminded of the ugliness of our history, because it keeps us from repeating it.”
And if that sounds like a politician playing both sides — well, if McCaskill has any chance of pulling out a win in 2018, in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, she’ll need to rely on her razor-sharp political instincts about the place. And get a lot of help.
From both sides.
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McCaskill was never supposed to survive this long. In 2012, she faced a tough reelection challenge from John Brunner, a Republican hand-sanitizer magnate positioning himself as an outsider. Instead of firing full blast on him, she engaged in a bit of political jujitsu with a move she liked to call “Operation Dog Whistle”: She bought TV ads attacking Brunner’s GOP opponent, Todd Akin, as “too conservative for Missouri.” In a Republican primary contest, that amounted to an in-kind contribution.
McCaskill had reckoned Akin would be the easiest Republican to defeat, because of his hard-right stances and his propensity to say outlandish things.
She was right.
Shortly after Akin won his primary, he choked on his own foot, with an interview in which he maintained women who suffer a “legitimate rape” aren’t likely to get pregnant. It was, McCaskill says, “the most exciting” day of her political career.
Surely there’s a part of McCaskill — who’s spent a good chunk of her career beclowning boorish men — that wishes she could use the president as a similar foil. While a member of the Missouri House of Representatives, the Senate majority leader called her a “whore.” She used the opportunity to condemn “gutter speech,” earning a standing ovation from the House and — perhaps more important — some statewide name recognition. In 2012, McCaskill was quietly thrilled when Rush Limbaugh called her a “commie babe liberal.” The attack made her look moderate by comparison and generated a flood of campaign contributions.
Of course, in today’s political circus, where the star of the scandalous “Access Hollywood” tape is now the president, McCaskill isn’t so sure that “legitimate rape” would even qualify as a legitimate controversy. “It certainly wouldn’t be as noteworthy,” she said.
And despite her attack-dog reputation, McCaskill has long seen value in picking her battles. Early in her career, “I made a decision to laugh on the outside at all the sexual harassment,” she wrote in “Plenty Ladylike,” her 2015 memoir, “while on the inside I used those moments to amp up my determination and focus to succeed.”
Today, McCaskill may be making a similar calculation. The best way to fight Trump is to win. And the best way to win, she seems to have decided, is to not fight Trump.
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“My dad taught me to drive on these country roads,” McCaskill said from the passenger seat of a Chevrolet Suburban as she headed from one rural town hall to the next. “When there was a break in the yellow line, he would reach over with his foot and just step on the accelerator.”
She pantomimed lifting her leg over the console. Her young driver widened his eyes with worry.
“I’d start shouting, ‘Holy s---!” she cackled. “And he’d yell right back: ‘Well, ya gotta learn how to pass in the country! That’s how we do it out here!’ ”
She grew up in these parts and knows how much that matters. As her mother lay dying in a hospital during the 2012 election cycle, she would constantly needle her daughter: “Are you spending enough time in rural Missouri?”
When she talks law and order — maintaining, for example, that anyone who tears down a statue should be prosecuted — it’s with the authority of a veteran prosecutor. (“A killer,” she was called by a top defense attorney in a 1987 Kansas City Star profile headlined “Blonde Ambition.”) And when reports surfaced on Twitter that violent left-wing “antifa” protesters had physically lashed out at journalists in Charlottesville, McCaskill seized upon the news.
“Yep, I know some of those guys, I’m telling you,” she said, holding up her phone to her staffers in the back of the car. “The skirmishes that broke out, I’m sure there was fault on both sides.”
Both sides. There it was again, an unexpected echo of Trump, who cast blame on “many sides” for the violence that erupted in Charlottesville when white nationalists and neo-Nazis protested the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. McCaskill was quick to say that Trump made the situation worse by not coming down hard on the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan — but her condemnation of “both sides” had an intentional-sounding ring to it.
McCaskill’s worry, of course, is not that Democrats will see her as too conservative; it’s that moderates will see her as too liberal. A Republican super PAC, America Rising, already has a tracker attending all of her events in search of a sound bite to help paint her as just another progressive in the Elizabeth Warren mold. On Sunday morning, Trump interrupted his tweets about the Texas storm response to announce that “I will also be going to a wonderful state, Missouri, that I won by a lot in ’16. Dem C.M. is opposed to big tax cuts.”
So at her appearances across the state, McCaskill seems more interested in talking about the price of hearing aids, bipartisan efforts to fix health care, or a bill she’s working on to provide aid to World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas, than she is in litigating the culture wars or talking about the president. It shouldn’t be surprising: Missouri has had trouble choosing sides ever since its residents fought for both the North and the South in the Civil War. Today, it’s the swingiest of swing states, and the land of both Ferguson and Rush Limbaugh. McCaskill knows the importance of finding balance on terrain that’s liable to shift, and shift again.
Recently, McCaskill co-hosted a Kansas City roundtable with Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, on the risk of agro-terrorism. The two discussed their work to protect the nation’s food supply from biological attacks, and Roberts praised McCaskill as the person to call when you need to get things done.
As the event came to a close, a news-media gaggle moved in, peppering the senators with questions about Trump’s latest controversies, among other things. Fortunately for Roberts, a member of the opposing party had armed him with the perfect dodge.
“Well, you know, there was somebody, I think it was Senator McCaskill from Missouri, who said it was not her job to really criticize the president,” he intoned. “It’s not mine, either.”
Standing by his side, McCaskill offered an exasperated smirk.
“It’s not exactly what I said,” she emphasized, then clarified: Her job was to fight for Missourians, but she reserved the right to criticize the president whenever she saw fit. She also reserved the right not to.
And so, she didn’t.