Claire McCaskill digging in to keep Senate seat

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in recent weeks has criticized the president’s budget as too tame, and has teamed up with Republicans on several fronts to control spending.

At the same time, the Missouri Democrat has been one of President Barack Obama’s strongest allies, backing his agenda about 95 percent of the time since 2010, according to a Congressional Quarterly analysis. She also was one of his earliest and most vocal supporters when he ran for the White House four years ago.

“I just love her, so whenever I have an excuse to see her, I’m happy,” the president said last month when the senator unexpectedly showed up at an Illinois fundraiser.

But bouquets like that won’t smell as sweet back home in Missouri, where Obama has hardly been popular and McCaskill faces a tough challenge this fall to hold on to her seat.

A three-decade veteran of Missouri politics, she knows full well that their mutual admiration society is just one of the reasons she’s on everyone’s list of most vulnerable Democrats. She is running for re-election when the public is disgusted with Congress’ perpetual state of partisan strife, and the economy — while slowly improving — has robbed many Americans of their hopes.

A recent Democratic poll put her job disapproval rating at 49 percent. Just 42 percent think she’s doing a good job. She’s also tied with each of her three potential Republican challengers. McCaskill said she’ll take a tie right now after months of being battered by negative advertising.

“I feel like an underdog,” McCaskill said in an interview with The Star. “But I do I know my state pretty well. I know that Missourians are impatient with what’s going on in Washington. They’re frustrated, and there’s a lot of anger and cynicism out there. That’s the wall I’ve got to climb over.”

McCaskill, 58, insisted that she’s not acting any differently than she has since entering the Senate six years ago: working across the aisle, supporting the White House when she can, and taking a hard look at government spending.

On more than one occasion, like her efforts to eliminate congressional earmarks and other attempts to change business as usual — sometimes with Republican allies — her efforts have put her in her own party’s doghouse.

“Some Missourians are, hopefully, going to say, ‘I don’t agree with her on everything, but at least she shoots straight,’ ” McCaskill said.

But Republicans contend that her votes for the president’s $1 trillion health care bill and $800 billion economic stimulus program alone undercut her claims of fiscal caution and political independence.

“There’s just a pattern of being out of step with Missouri voters,” said Lance Trover, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It’s going to come down to a referendum on her.”

Missouri is one of a handful of states with contests that both parties view as pivotal for control of the Senate next year. Others include Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Montana, Florida, Wisconsin and Arizona.

Republicans have an advantage, on paper. They are only defending 10 seats this time, while Democrats must protect 23. In reality, all of those contests won’t be competitive. It will come down to just a few, with Missouri already shaping up to become a possible battle royal — even without a clear Republican challenger yet.

In conversations with Republicans and Democrats active in party politics and familiar with the Missouri political environment, most said they were “cautiously optimistic” about their party’s chances. No one on either side, however, said the race would be easy.

Several who hold official positions or play roles in the party or with the campaigns asked not to be identified by name so they could speak more freely. An active Missouri Democrat who has worked on statewide campaigns said one of his party’s biggest worries was that the contest becomes “nationalized.”

“It becomes all about the politics in D.C. and not about the candidates,” he said. “That would hurt Claire in two ways: she’s the incumbent, and she’s from the same party as the president.”

But several Republicans praised McCaskill’s political skills and said it would be a mistake to underestimate her. “She is not going to roll over,” said an aide who has worked on Republican congressional campaigns

Another Republican with Capitol Hill experience suggested that his party had some doubts about the field of GOP hopefuls lined up against her. He said that she was “a proven winner, and I think most Republicans think the jury is still out on the challengers.”

The three Republicans hoping for the chance to unseat her are former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin and St. Louis businessman John Brunner, a first-time candidate.

Three potentially stronger GOP candidates passed on the race: former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, who McCaskill defeated, and U.S. Reps. Jo Ann Emerson and Sam Graves.

But a Republican congressional aide said that given this year’s public anger toward incumbents, a top-tier candidate might not be necessary.

“None of them is a rock star,” he said of Steelman, Akin and Brunner, “but the sense is that McCaskill might be vulnerable, that it just takes a good candidate.”

Money apparently will not be a problem for the Republicans. It’s been rolling in. The party and allies such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS — a policy and grassroots advocacy group chartered under the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit — already have spent several million dollars on negative advertising against McCaskill. Super PACs are political action committees that can keep their donors secret.

With McCaskill’s job approval in the low 40s, the ads are likely taking their toll. Her campaign began responding last week with two statewide radio ads. One responded to a Crossroads ad attacking her for backing Obama’s compromise on the rule requiring church-related institutions to provide free contraception coverage. The other trumpeted her Missouri roots and political independence.

Once she starts responding, "the dynamic will change pretty drastically and remind voters why they voted for Claire in first place," said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Her path to re-election is the same route she followed in 2006, Democrats said, and includes making inroads among independent voters, especially in the rural parts of the state; doing well in the suburban swing counties around Kansas City and St. Louis; and campaigning hard in the Republican counties where she has no chance of winning but can raise her vote total.

“It’s about keeping the margins as close as I can in places that are red and getting a lot of people to the polls in the places that are blue,” McCaskill said.

She also is counting on the president to generate enthusiasm in the cities and boost the Democratic turnout among African-American voters. They were 11 percent of the Missouri electorate in 2008, and only slightly less in 2004.

Still, strategists in both parties said that McCaskill faces several obstacles, including her votes for the stimulus program and the health care law, and her failure to pay nearly $300,000 in taxes on her family’s private plane. She used it for official business, which is permissible under Senate rules. But her staff mistakenly charged some political trips to her Senate account.

Her reputation as a champion of good government took a hit. It also could be hard to persuade families hurt by the economy that someone who uses a private plane and fails to pay the taxes understands their plight — particularly since she has a net worth of between $18 million and $35 million because of her husband’s wealth, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

McCaskill acknowledged the potential of the issue, but noted that, “I worked my way through school as a waitress. I was a single mom with three kids. We went to Disney World on money that I saved from the coupons I clipped. That wasn’t that long ago. I don’t think I have trouble relating to families and what they’re worried about.”

As one Democrat who has run political campaigns in the state observed, “She has to be able to define herself as an independent voice for working families, not a lockstep vote for (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid.”

Her major stumbling block, though, could be the president, who narrowly lost Missouri in 2008 and has been losing ground there ever since, as well as the shifting political hue of the state. Missouri appears to be shedding its reputation as the quintessential swing state and weathervane for the national mood.

“It’s not a blue state, not a purple state; it’s a red state where Democrats occasionally have some success,” said one Democratic strategist. “It’s a leaning-Republican state. It’s the only state in the country that the president targeted and didn’t win. For us, that’s the hurdle.”