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Politics, Elections and Government

Former Sen. Claire McCaskill Delves Into The Way Forward For Missouri Democrats

Former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill answers questions while she was still serving in office during a town hall at Harris-Stowe State University in 2018. McCaskill has been an MSNBC political commentator since departing the Senate in 2019.
Carolina Hidalgo
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill answers questions while she was still serving in office during a town hall at Harris-Stowe State University in 2018. McCaskill has been an MSNBC political commentator since departing the Senate in 2019.

The last Missouri Democrat to win a U.S. Senate race talks about whether her party can succeed in the 2022 contest to replace U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.

After having served in office starting in 1982, former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said she’s now enjoying being a political commentator on MSNBC.

She said she was initially worried about what she would do with her time after losing to Republican Josh Hawley in 2018, adding that her life in politics was akin to being on a “hamster wheel” with a nonstop schedule and commitments. But the former Democratic official said she’s been busy and happy.

“What they’re really doing is they’re paying me to talk about something I love and to be incredibly candid — and hopefully be able to simplify complicated things for the viewers of MSNBC,” McCaskill said. “And it’s been a blast. I hope people can tell how much fun I’m having. I’m way happier than I thought I would be.”

McCaskill also was candid in a recent nearly hourlong interview with St. Louis Public Radio, touching on a multitude of topics about her career in politics — and her views on social media and former President Donald Trump. She spent much of the conversation talking about Missouri’s transformation from a swing state where Democrats frequently won statewide elections to a bright red outpost.

While noting that she’s used to criticism and has “skin thicker than a 200-year-old oak tree,” McCaskill said she doesn’t particularly care for “this ridiculous notion that seemed to take root” after the 2018 election that she would have beaten Hawley if she was more liberal.

“All you have to do is look at the numbers. We rang the bell in Kansas City and St. Louis,” said McCaskill, adding that she did better in Democratic areas than in her 2006 run against GOP Sen. Jim Talent. “This wasn’t a problem of turnout in progressive areas of the state. It wasn’t a problem of margins in Black communities or any other communities. We far exceeded our numbers. This is all about people turning out that totally bought into Donald Trump.”

Hawley swamped McCaskill in historically Democratic exurban and rural counties. And places like northeast and southeast Missouri went all in for the former president during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

“He talked like they talked at the VFW Hall having a beer and a chaser. And he really appealed to grievances that people have about how their lives have turned out,” McCaskill said. “The bottom line is people have worked harder, they’ve worked longer, they still can’t afford to retire. They still can’t afford to send their kids to college.”

Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio /

Democratic direction

McCaskill was sharply critical of Trump for egging on his supporters in claiming that he had actually won the 2020 election, even though numerous election officials and judges found that no irregularities would have overturned any result in a state President Joe Biden needed to win.

She also said that the “Big Lie” that Trump really won the election is complicating GOP primaries across the state.

Former Sen. Claire McCaskill Delves Into The Way Forward For Missouri Democrats

“I will give you that standing up to the Big Lie would cause Missouri Republicans problems in primaries,” McCaskill said. “And I would even give you that right now in Missouri, somebody who is lying and winning a primary in most legislative districts will still be able to win their election.”

But she added that if Missouri Republicans continue to play to the “cheapest of seats” and engage in stands like not expanding Medicaid, they’ll start to lose support in suburban and exurban districts.

“And when that starts happening, that’s when you’ll see some kind of moderation of the crazy stuff they’re doing in Jeff City,” McCaskill said. “But for right now in Missouri … this primary calculation will work for them.”

McCaskill said Democrats do have a chance to win the U.S. Senate race next year, especially if someone like former Gov. Eric Greitens is the GOP nominee. Among the Democrats seeking the Senate nomination are former state Sen. Scott Sifton, Jefferson City native Lucas Kunce, Kansas City entrepreneur Tim Shepard and St. Louis businessman Spencer Toder.

Toder said Democrats can make the race competitive if they aggressively seek out voter support.

“When people running realize that they have to talk to people like humans, and like smart humans, which they are — I think we’ll bring a lot of people on board,” he said.

And Shepard said making the case in areas of the state that have tilted toward the GOP is crucial.

“I’ve been in Hannibal. I’ve been in Nevada and Joplin,” he said. “And having those events and the opportunity to talk with them with policies that benefit them is really the name of the game.”

The Democratic field may not be completely set, as Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and state Sen. Brian Williams have made overtures about running for the U.S. Senate. And former Gov. Jay Nixon, who did not return a message asking about his 2022 intentions, might run too, as McCaskill noted — and could bring some positive attributes to the table.

“The coalition you have to put together in Missouri, it’s very tough because you have to just hang the moon in the progressive blue areas of the state. And then you have to cut the margins in rural Missouri. I think Jay can cut the margins in rural Missouri,” McCaskill said. “I think he has some work to do to make sure the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is enthusiastic about him.”

Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio /

Sharp words for Hawley

McCaskill won’t be a candidate for the U.S. Senate or any other office again. But she hasn’t been shy about criticizing Hawley — especially about his decision to object to Pennsylvania and Arizona’s Electoral College votes.

She said that Hawley “should get credit for causing January 6,” referring to the riots that took place in the U.S. Capitol, because he was the first senator to announce he would lodge an objection. She contended Hawley “broke ranks to play to the base and play to the Trump people.”

“Josh Hawley did it, and did it for blatantly political reasons,” she said. “The excuse was, ‘People want us to look into it because there were irregularities.’ No. People wanted you to look into it because they had been lied to. And those guys all know it. So it is really astounding to me that they are continuing this.”

McCaskill was referring to Hawley’s contention that he should object because people around Missouri were “outraged at how some states handled their elections.”

“Hey listen, I’m not going to give anybody trouble for being ambitious. I was a very ambitious young woman and it served me well through decades of political life,” McCaskill said. “But his ambition is so blinding that he has gone so quickly from swearing off politicians to being the most power-hungry politician — maybe in Missouri’s history. He actually believed by doing what he did it would put him in a good place to run for president. I don’t think it’s done that.”

Hawley's office declined comment on McCaskill's remarks.

File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio /

Blunt, social media and what she misses

McCaskill also discussed her relationship with departing U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican who is retiring in 2022 after two terms in office.

On the surface, it wouldn’t seem like Blunt and McCaskill would get along, based on past political history. McCaskill ran against Blunt’s son, Matt Blunt, for governor in 2004. And McCaskill’s mother, Betty Anne McCaskill, ran against Blunt’s father, Leroy Blunt, for state representative in 1978. But McCaskill noted that the two had respect for each other, probably because she and Blunt have a similar political trajectory.

“We both did county government. We both did state government. We both believe in going out and actually hearing and being in front of the people we work for,” McCaskill said. “He spent a lot of time traveling around his district as a congressman and the whole state as a senator. I did the same thing. So we related to one another. And we liked each other as people.”

McCaskill noted that she wouldn’t have run for a third term in 2018 “if there was anybody else,” adding that she felt “a duty to run.” Blunt, she said, doesn’t have that problem, as there are numerous Republicans who want to succeed him.

“He’s been in Congress long enough to see, and I saw it too, and it’s really bad now: people who didn’t know when to leave,” she said. “There’s a bunch of people there that should be gone. They are way too old to be doing what they’re doing.”

One of the things that McCaskill doesn’t regret is how she used social media platforms like Twitter to get her message across to voters. Unlike other lawmakers, McCaskill wrote all of her own tweets — and took a “great deal of ribbing” about what she wrote.

“I used to walk into caucus and people would start making fun of me,” she said. “I remember Dick Durbin saying, ‘Hey Claire, are you going to tweet what you had at Taco Bell yesterday?’ I kept trying to explain to them it was like a public bulletin board. And if you want to communicate with people, just think about it as putting it up on a public bulletin board.”

When asked if she missed anything about being in office, McCaskill cited the collegiality and spending time with her fellow senators. She also said she misses the personal interactions that come with politics, even “walking into a town hall knowing that 90% of the audience would just as soon see me ride out on a broom.”

“But on the list of sides of things I miss and the list of sides of things I don’t miss, the don’t miss is much longer than the miss,” she said.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
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