Last week, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill and her Republican opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, met in St. Louis for a one-hour televised debate. McCaskill found herself on the defense through much of it. That’s expected. In this current political climate, being a 12-year incumbent means you have 12 years of votes for your opponent to twist and manipulate into whatever narrative their latest polling says will best work to their political advantage. While they spend their allotted time attacking you with claims (some true, some false), you’re forced to spend your time defending yourself, correcting the record, or just calling your opponent a liar. That doesn’t leave much time for telling viewers about you and your agenda. That’s what happened to McCaskill last week. That, and something much worse.
The other part of Hawley and the Republicans’ strategy has been to force McCaskill to the right, wedging her away from her Democratic base. For every time Hawley called McCaskill a “party line liberal”, there was a time McCaskill touted her willingness to work with Donald Trump. “I’m not afraid to compliment the president,” she said at one point. You could almost hear the frustrated sighs of Tower Grove Berniecrats. But we’ve seen this coming. After all, McCaskill has been moving to the right for months, even running TV commercials proudly stating that “no senator is tougher on securing the border than Claire McCaskill.”
The ad features representatives of the “Border Patrol Council” who state that they “endorsed President Trump and Claire McCaskill because of their records on border security” (though it’s not clear what record of Trump’s they’re referring to since he never held a political office before being elected president). The ad goes on to state McCaskill was “one of only four Democrats to vote to end sanctuary cities.” This ad is running in the St. Louis market, where just last year we explored joining with other cities across the country to stand up against the Trump administration’s threats against local governments that refused to cooperate with their aggressive targeting of immigrant populations.
McCaskill isn’t running as a Democrat. She’s playing to the middle—right of the middle, actually—to appeal to rural and suburban voters who she hopes will do like those guys from the Border Patrol Council and endorse her this election, even though they endorsed Trump in the last. Meanwhile, she hopes Democrats in St. Louis and Kansas City will keep their eye on the prize and not let the perfect get in the way of the good. After all, despite playing footsie with Trump voters now, she has a good voting record on the vast majority of issues Democrats care about. Or as Hawley points out repeatedly, she votes the party line.
Maybe that’s enough for that often-polled “likely voter”. The polls suggest that among those likely voters, McCaskill is neck-and-neck with Hawley heading into the final weeks of the campaign. But what about the “unlikely” voter? It was them who propelled Donald Trump to the White House in 2016, just as a different group of unlikely voters did the same for Barack Obama eight years earlier.
Trump’s rhetoric is very effective at mobilizing those unlikely voters. His words are as powerful in that regard as they are irresponsible and dangerous. We only need to look at the mail bomb scares of this week to see the atmosphere that this hyper-partisanship is creating in this country. But for McCaskill and Missouri Democrats the question is whether or not they are offering Democratic-leaning unlikely voters anything worth coming out to vote for on November 6. If those voters were watching last Thursday’s debate, I don’t think so. If the choice is between a Republican and a Republican-lite, I think unlikely voters will go with the real thing or just stay home.
I hope that’s not the case. Our country desperately needs a new Congress to act as the check and balance that branch of government was intended to provide, a responsibility that Republicans have completely abandoned. If Democrats lose this Missouri seat it makes the necessary math much more difficult. But the kind of campaign McCaskill is running and the messages she’s sending leaves many wondering what it means to be a Missouri Democrat.