MARSHFIELD, Mo. — Webster County, Mo., is known to locals as the birthplace of the astronomer Edwin Hubble, and it claims to host the longest-running Independence Day parade west of the Mississippi River. But in politics, it’s known for being one of the most Republican counties in Missouri — a considerable distinction in a state that has steadily grown redder in recent years, especially here in the heavily rural southwest part of the state.
So it would seem strange to find Sen. Claire McCaskill here in the final days of a reelection campaign she readily describes as the “toughest fight” of her life, stumping in a county where Donald Trump won nearly 80 percent of the vote two years ago and where the two-term Democrat has never come close to winning.
But on a recent afternoon, that’s exactly where McCaskill was — pacing back and forth in the back room at Sheila’s Place, a small restaurant just outside downtown Marshfield where a review boasts that the catfish is “slap your mama good.” About 60 people, mostly AARP age and above, sat listening as she made her pitch. They sipped sweet tea and flipped through pages of campaign literature — including a flier talking up McCaskill’s record of holding 52 town hall meetings over the last year “in every corner of Missouri” — even the parts where people “don’t like me very much.”
And that’s become a key element of McCaskill’s closing argument in a race that many predict could end up being the closest in the country and will play a role in determining which party controls the Senate. A Democrat who describes herself as one of the last true centrists in an increasingly polarized Senate, McCaskill is wagering big on Trump country in the final days of the election, gambling on her gut feeling that people will respect and support a candidate who comes to them and makes her case in person, even if they disagree. And even if it’s not enough to shift a county, picking up five, 10 or 20 votes could make the difference in a race she believes will come down to inches.
“I’m trying not just to go to the usual places that candidates go. I don’t know how many statewide candidates on the Democratic side stop in Webster County, but I think it’s really important that I show that I work for everybody in this state,” McCaskill said in an interview. “People may not agree with me on everything, but I bet we agree on something, and I bet I’m more effective at getting those things done than somebody who is always just casting blame on the other side.”
That somebody she refers to is Josh Hawley, the state’s 38-year-old Republican attorney general who has built his campaign largely around his unabashed loyalty to Trump and his argument that McCaskill is a “party-line liberal” out of step with the values of a majority of Missouri voters who strongly support the president’s policies.
“She does not represent this state anymore. She does not represent the people of Missouri,” Hawley declared at a debate earlier this month.
While McCaskill talks extensively about policies that she says prove she’s a champion for average Missourians — including her work for veterans and prosecutorial zeal in going after the pharmaceutical industry on drug prices and its role in the opioid epidemic — Hawley has nationalized the race. He regularly tells Missourians that a vote for McCaskill is a vote for the “radical left-wing agenda of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.”
An Ivy League-educated former law professor and former clerk for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Hawley has enjoyed a meteoric rise in GOP politics, first winning elected office just two years ago. Almost immediately, top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, recruited Hawley to run against McCaskill, and he agreed, even though he had publicly said he would not use the attorney general job as a steppingstone to higher office. In 2016, Hawley even ran an ad showing a roomful of people climbing ladders — an attack on “career politicians” who used “one office to get another” — implying he would not do the same.
McCaskill often mentions the spot. “Turns out he had a ladder in his trunk,” she told voters this week, criticizing her opponent as a political opportunist who lacks her decades-long record of public service, including six years in the state legislature, five years as the Jackson County prosecutor in Kansas City, eight years as state auditor and her 12 years in the U.S. Senate.
“As Ronald Reagan said, ‘I’m gonna try not to hold his youth and inexperience against him,’” the senator, who is 65, told voters in Marshfield. “But I will tell ’ya, I think it’s important to remember that we had an experience in 2016 where we had brand-new people burst into the scene.” Her audience laughed.
However, McCaskill’s experience and her record as a moderate haven’t been enough to overcome Hawley’s appeal among conservative voters. The race has been in a dead heat for months. “This race is as close as it gets,” she said.
McCaskill has always faced uphill battles in running for office as a red-state Democrat. In 2006, she lost most of rural Missouri but narrowly won by running up the votes in St. Louis and Kansas City. In 2012, she won handily over a gaffe-prone opponent, Rep. Todd Akin, whose remarks about “legitimate rape” became a national embarrassment to Republicans. That year, McCaskill won even deeply conservative counties in southern Missouri, including Greene County, home of Springfield, which she visited this week hoping to persuade voters to give her a third term.
But Hawley, a cool and careful speaker, is not prone to gaffes, and his message of pledging loyalty to Trump, who has visited Missouri three times to campaign on his behalf, plays well in a region where the president remains enormously popular. Hawley has said he believes Trump is doing a “great job” and disagrees with “nothing” that president has done so far — including the trade war with China, which could potentially devastate the state’s agricultural and manufacturing industries. “It’s a war the Chinese started,” Hawley said last month. “If we’re going to be in a war, I’m for winning it.”
To have any chance of victory, McCaskill will have to find Trump voters willing to break with their party to support her — a task she admits won’t be easy but insists is possible.
On the trail, she has emphasized her local roots. She was born in Rolla, in rural central Missouri, and grew up in tiny Houston, where her father worked at the local mill. Her parents were deeply involved in politics. Her father served as chairman of the county Democratic party. He was later elected state insurance commissioner, and the family moved to Columbia, where her mother became the first woman elected to the city council. In ads, McCaskill has emphasized that she “never left Missouri” and, under the influence of her parents, has dedicated her life to public service in behalf of her home state.
While McCaskill is folksy and personable on the trail, she campaigns like the prosecutor she used to be, meticulously presenting her case for what she has done for average Missourians and defending herself against charges that she’s gone too far to the left for the state. “I am a centrist, pure and simple, right down the middle,” she said last week.
“I know I don’t cast every vote the way every Missourian wants me to. … I’m kind of in a good spot because no matter how I vote, half the people at home are mad. There’s no way to please everybody in Missouri,” she told voters in Marshfield. “And you can’t press on yourself about trying to. You’ve gotta vote on what you think is right and be willing to explain. To go into town halls all over this state, no matter whether I’m popular there or I’m unpopular there, and explain.”
Unlike Democrats in some other states, McCaskill doesn’t have the luxury of running a campaign aimed just at turning out her base; it isn’t big enough. She has a colorful way of explaining the electorate in Missouri. “I’ve got 35 percent of the people in Missouri that watched Sean Hannity the other night and say, ‘I’m right, he’s right.’ I’ve got 25 percent of the people in Missouri watching Rachel Maddow, saying, ‘I’m right, she’s right.’ The rest of Missouri is watching “Dancing With the Stars,” and they don’t like us or any of this,” she said. “I’m trying to always think about those people watching “Dancing With the Stars,” and they’re not paying as close attention to who said what and whether or not it’s backed up with any facts.”
But it’s unclear whether McCaskill is effectively reaching the “Dancing With the Stars” vote. Touring Trump country in her campaign RV last week, the senator spoke mostly to friendly crowds, including many voters who were already supporting her.
Ahead of her arrival in Marshfield, a show of hands revealed just one Republican in the group. And in Springfield, she spoke at her campaign office to a crowd that mostly included local Democrats and campaign volunteers.
Asked whether she felt she was getting her message out to the voters she needs, McCaskill bluntly admitted, “I don’t know, but we’re working hard at it.”
Complicating the senator’s efforts in the final days of the campaign is the intense spending by outside groups that have bombarded the race with political ads. More than $64 million has been spent on the race so far—more than half it by groups looking to defeat McCaskill, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Among other things, Republicans have targeted McCaskill for her family’s wealth, dubbing her “Millionaire Claire” and suggesting she’s out of touch with working-class voters. America Rising, a GOP super-PAC, attacked her for using a private plane to fly between campaign stops earlier this year and called attention to reports that businesses linked to her husband, developer Joseph Shepard, had received millions in federal subsidies — although there was no evidence that McCaskill had played a role in securing the funds.
On the road this week, McCaskill repeatedly condemned the role of “dark money” in the campaign. She urged voters to go to her website to read fact-checks if they have questions about allegations made in ads. And volunteers handed out a fact sheet titled “How to Recognize Fake News.”
On Tuesday, her campaign launched a new television ad featuring several veterans defending her against the dark money attacks. “I’ve checked the facts on all these [opposition] ads, and they’re just not true,” one of the speakers says. “You don’t have to like her, but know one thing: In the Senate, she hasn’t done anything to help her family.”
But as CNN reported, a new radio ad took the argument further, with a supporter saying, “Claire’s not one of those crazy Democrats.” That line is unlikely to sit well with some of McCaskill’s more liberal supporters, including in urban areas where a source close to the campaign said it has struggled to appeal to black and progressive voters who are fervently anti-Trump and have been disappointed to see McCaskill’s overtures to the president and his supporters. A Democratic source said the campaign is concerned that she might not rack up the numbers she needs in St. Louis and Kansas City.
McCaskill has measured her words about Trump. She criticizes the “drama” he has brought into the office. “I just don’t think that we should be setting an example that the leader of the most amazing nation in the world thinks it’s OK to lie all the time,” McCaskill said in her final debate with Hawley. “Just lie after lie after lie.”
But when a woman in Marshfield pressed her on why she didn’t try to call out Trump more, listing the mistruths she felt the president had gotten away with, including his suggestion earlier this week that a tax cut could be passed before Election Day, the senator interrupted her.
“I know, I know, I know. But you know what? I’ve gotta convince everybody in Missouri of — because of the state I represent — I’ve gotta convince them that I don’t get up every day trying to figure out a way to fight President Trump,” McCaskill replied. “I get up every day trying to figure out a way to fight for you. And there are some things that President Trump has done that I agree with. There’s a whole lot of things he said and the way he’s conducted himself that I disagree with.”
She complains that the flamboyant theatrics in the White House have overshadowed some actual achievements, including 30 bills she co-sponsored that were signed into law. Among them was a Trump-backed bill that banned “gag clauses” that prohibited pharmacists from disclosing to patients that it would be cheaper to pay for certain medications out of pocket than use insurance — the kind of nonflashy legislation that she argues has a big impact on voters’ pocketbooks.
But her job in the last week before the election was to break through both to Trump voters and also members of her own party who she felt weren’t taking the midterm election seriously enough.
“We have plenty of voters to win this election if they remember that this midterm should be treated like a presidential” election, she said. “We have a bad habit of not thinking the midterms are as important. And this is one that really is.”
McCaskill looked around the room. The difference in the election could literally come down to the people in this room, she said. And until November 6, she plans to go anywhere and talk to anyone she can to make her case.
“It’s not that I gotta get every vote,” she said. “You know how many votes I’ve gotta get? One more than him.”
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