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Why Sen. Claire McCaskill's Final Effort To Bridge Missouri's Divides Fell Short

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3 file photo
Sen. Claire McCaskill stops at KCUR 89.3 during her final campaign for Senate.

Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s long political career appears to be over, having lost her re-election bid Tuesday night to Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley. McCaskill indicated in recent weeks that, no matter the outcome, this would likely be her last campaign.

She prided herself on reaching out not only to traditionally Democratic constituencies, but also rural areas in a state that has trended far more Republican since she was first elected to the Senate in 2006. But in the end, she got less than 30 percent of the rural vote, even as she won the state’s urban areas by close to 300,000 votes.

“She has stayed true to a certain extent to that moderate stance,” said Robynn Kuhlman, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri. “Her legacy as a senator, I think, was her ability to work across the aisle, which in the end unfortunately may have tanked this election.”

McCaskill had beaten the odds before, and needed all the help she could get to beat them again in a state where Donald Trump won by 19 percentage points in 2016.

Hawley never failed to remind her of that on the campaign trail.

“Sen. McCaskill hasn’t heard a word that you said to her in 2016,” Hawley said during a rally with Vice President Mike Pence on Nov. 2 — the Friday before the election. “She is opposing President Trump and the agenda you voted for, every step of the way.”

McCaskill often tried to point out where she agreed with the president, issues like border security, while still touting her independence on health care.

“I want to vote on things that will help people in my state,” McCaskill said during an appearance in Kansas City in October. “Sometimes, that means I agree with the President and sometimes that means I stand up to the president and say you’re wrong.”

Walk the line

But Hawley, the attorney general, proved to be a formidable opponent, relentlessly attacking McCaskill’s voting record in Washington, D.C., as being out of step with Missouri as he campaigned extensively in rural parts of the state. Those criticisms included votes against the Republican tax cuts and Supreme Court justices Neil Gorusch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Credit Aviva Okeson-Haberman / KCUR 89.3 file photo
KCUR 89.3 file photo
Attorney General Josh Hawley speaks at campaign office in August.

“The people of this state have noticed, and they want someone who’s going to stand with them and that’s exactly what I’ll do,” Hawley said following a debate at the KMBC-TV studios on Oct. 26.

The station invited voters from across Missouri to be in the audience for the final debate of the campaign. Two brothers, Terry and Ron Herrin, made the 100-mile trip from Trenton in Grundy County.

“We both were factory workers, we both were union leaders in our local plant, so I voted for her every time,” Herrin said of McCaskill. 

But the men were considering a change in 2018 despite their reservations with Republicans’ record on health care and Social Security.

“I’ve voted for her several times,” Ron Herrin said. “My biggest thing with her now is the gun control issue.”

It’s these type of voters McCaskill had tried to court ever since her narrow 2004 loss in the Missouri governor’s race to Republican Matt Blunt. Until Tuesday, that was the only race she had ever lost.

University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Anita Manion said McCaskill did well in traditionally Democratic areas in 2004, but poorly in rural areas. 

“That's when she started really hitting the ground and doing a lot of campaigning and rural areas, tons of town halls, and that was sort of when she turned the corner. And she is known as a really tough campaigner,” Manion said.

The focus on rural voters that helped in the 2006 Senate race did not help in 2018, and some voters felt left behind.

A last stand

Credit Erica Hunzinger / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Clergy members, including U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (far left), pray for Claire McCaskill (center) during an election-eve event in Kansas City.

In a place where souls are saved, McCaskill made a last stand to save her job.

Supporters packed St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City on Monday night for a get-out-the-vote rally. It’s the church Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver once led, before giving way to his son; both were in attendance.

“I just want you all to know, this has been a tough one,” McCaskill said to the crowd.  “You’ve lifted me up, you’ve given me fuel. You made me more determined. You have inspired me to work harder, and be stronger.”

McCaskill sought to rally the base of black voters in the final days before the election, after facing months of criticism from some leaders for neglecting their concerns during the campaign.

“I think that black voters and black leaders have said time and time again that we need you to show up, we need you to show up for our people, our communities and for our issues,” said Michele L. Watley, founder of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, a nonprofit that seeks to promote engagement and advocacy among black women. “And I don’t know that we’ve seen that even through this election at the level that it should be, considering her race is so close.”

McCaskill’s efforts to bridge Missouri’s divides came up short. In her concession speech, she looked back at a long career of public service, stretching from her years as a state legislator representing Kansas City’s Brookside neighborhood to a seat on Capitol Hill.

"For decades, I have been blessed to get up every day and work in a challenging and interesting job trying to make things better in people's lives,” McCaskill said.

She noted that  she would continue to find ways to help Democrats and serve her beloved state: two things that meant so much to her, but left her frustrated when she needed them most.

KCUR reporter Michelle Tyrene Johnson and editor Erica Hunzinger contributed to this report.

Samuel King is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelKingNews

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