WASHINGTON • At the beginning of 2017, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s road to re-election was littered with potholes. Donald Trump had won Missouri by 19 percentage points, Republicans had just swept the major offices in the state, and her fellow Democrats, nationally, were rudderless, on the defensive, and defined by the politics of the coasts, far from the heartland.
McCaskill declared herself the underdog through much of ’17. But that claim became harder to defend as the year progressed. The forecast got sunnier for Democrats nationally, and events in Missouri reshaped McCaskill’s Republican opposition and the political tenets of 2018.
McCaskill had robust fundraising in 2017, pulling in roughly a million dollars a month. Even though she tries to disown them, outside spending groups are already running advertisements on her behalf, and preparing to pour tens of millions of dollars of messaging into TV and social media platforms. With two big exceptions — a quip about flying on private planes, and a false claim she hadn’t met with the Russian ambassador — the tweeting and sometimes off-the-cuff McCaskill had a gaffe-free 2017, displaying message discipline on issues that, further away from an election, she may have expounded on more extemporaneously.
McCaskill held 50 town halls in 2017 — many in rural parts of the state — that allowed her to burnish claims that she’s willing to practice Show-Me politics in towns where she may not be that popular.
And perhaps most importantly of all, Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, a veteran politician in a state tilting toward her party, decided not to run for Senate, surprising virtually everyone but Wagner.
In stepped Attorney General Josh Hawley and three lesser-known Republican primary opponents — none of whom have the experience of candidates that McCaskill has faced in two previous Senate victories.
“Josh Hawley is a strong candidate, but it’s hard to consider an incumbent with as much money as (McCaskill’s) already raised to be the underdog,” said Jeremy Walling, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University said. “I suspect some of the underdog talk is political theater designed to mobilize supporters and donors.”
QUIZ: 2017 Year in Politics A lot happened in 2017. Were you paying attention?
In an extended interview, McCaskill, 64, pushed back on that observation.
“You will never get me to admit that,” McCaskill said. “That is not the way I roll. I absolutely look at this where I am behind, I will be behind until it is over — that I have to work extra hard, that there is absolutely no advantage that is going to come to my side of the equation just by the environment that is out there.”
Those in her inner circle describe McCaskill as her own best political adviser, a politician with a drive to outwork everyone around her and a knack for reading data and the political intangibles — public mood, emerging issues — with equal capacity and ferocity.
She hates fundraising, advisers say. She loves almost everything else about campaigning, except — like all politicians — for the toll on family.
“Listen, it will be hard,” she said of the 2018 campaign. “It will be a lot of hard work. But I am not afraid of hard work.”
However, it may not be as hard as it looked at the beginning of 2017. Leading into 2018, four national factors overshadow Missouri’s U.S. Senate race, and at least two are tilting McCaskill’s way, despite the national pundit pack’s narrative that she’s the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrat.
• The Senate 2018 election map is shape-shifting.
Democrats are defending far more seats in 2018 — 24 to the Republicans’ nine. As Trump took office in January, the focus was on McCaskill and nine Democrats in states that Trump won who face re-election in 2018.
But many of them, McCaskill included, have robustly fundraised and have been blessed with the decisions of potentially powerful foes not to run. Then, the retirements of Republican senators in Arizona and Tennessee, and a strong challenge to Nevada’s Sen. Dean Heller, spread the vulnerability into traditional Republican states, meaning the GOP will have to play defense in places it didn’t expect to. And Democrat Doug Jones’ upset in an Alabama special election narrowed the GOP Senate advantage to 51-49, buoying Democrats’ chances of taking the chamber, and forcing a recalculation of where the national parties will deploy money and campaign workers.
• The sexual harassment scandals that have ricocheted through politics, media and entertainment could be a boost for female candidates, generally.
Legislatively, McCaskill has made sexual harassment and assault on campuses and in the military a signature issue.
But she tries to downplay gender as a factor, arguing that “I am always hesitant to get into the gender stuff.
“I don’t ever want anyone to ever vote for me or against me because I am a woman,” McCaskill said.
Will revelations — and outrage against powerful men — continue in 2018, or will a backlash against rushing to judgment based on allegations alone arise?
“The sexual harassment issue is still fresh, and I wonder if we have just scratched the surface,” Southeast Missouri’s Walling said.
• Surrogatewise, McCaskill may not have much help. The national Democratic brand is toxic in many states, including Missouri, that have big Senate races in 2018.
Unlike Hawley, who could tap Trump or any number of Republican congressional leaders who could be helpful in Missouri, McCaskill is unlikely to ask Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer or House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in to sway voters. Even former President Barack Obama, who twice lost Missouri, may not be as popular a surrogate in the Show-Me State as his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama, would be.
And like-minded red-state Democratic senators who might have a centrist appeal in Missouri — such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia or Jon Tester of Montana — face re-election themselves and therefore can’t be surrogates for each other.
President Donald Trump arrives in St. Louis for tax speech Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (left) and State Attorney General Josh Hawley talk before the arrival of President Donald Trump at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Nov. 29. Photo by Robert Cohen, email@example.com
On the other hand, some in McCaskill’s orbit believe that it could be an underappreciated advantage for McCaskill to be seen as the last big-name Democrat standing in the way of turning the upper echelon of Missouri politics entirely over to Republicans.
• Trump is more popular in Missouri than he is nationally, and he has promised to campaign for Hawley in the state.
“Trump’s approval rating is tanking nationally, but it is much more stable in Missouri,” Walling said. “If he maintains the status quo, McCaskill could have a harder time. Still, she’s the pro in this contest. She’s battled and won before and she has a ton of money.”
To Hawley’s advantage, he has not been caught in the national fight between establishment Republicans and a populist, nationalist insurgency led by Trump adviser Steve Bannon. That split contributed to Jones’ victory in Alabama, and is something all Republican candidates could potentially face in ’18.
Will Hawley’s primary opponents — ex-Libertarian Austin Petersen, Navy veteran Courtland Sykes, and former Air Force pilot Tony Monetti — force Hawley to defend a Republican establishment that Trump repeatedly attacks?
“Hawley so far has successfully negotiated the slowly growing divide between the traditional Republicans and the insurgents,” said Dave Robertson, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “But that crack is going to widen, and like all Republican candidates in 2018, Hawley will have a harder time negotiating it — especially since he, like all Republican candidates, will be characterized as President Trump’s loyal enabler-to-be.”
The Trump factor
McCaskill said she believes Trump will be a two-sided motivator.
Trump “can be a great help to Josh Hawley” in a Republican primary, she said, but “once it is the general election I think it is a little bit more of a mixed bag. Because he certainly is motivating to a lot of voters who disagree with him, and ultimately elections, especially nonpresidential elections — a whole lot depends on enthusiasm.”
Peter Hart, who conducts polls for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, said that Trump’s average of 40 percent job approval for the year was a new low for a new president.
Trump “lost the support and respect of a majority of Americans in his first year as president,” and because of that and the passage of an unpopular tax-cut bill, Democrats enter 2018 with a more motivated base than Republicans do.
“Voters wanted change, not chaos,” Hart said. “In a time when the country needs to heal and unite, President Trump has taken Americans’ collective pain — whether from Charlottesville, Puerto Rico, or Las Vegas — and found a way to cleave us further.”
But Republicans, Hart said, “seem to be on board with both his agenda and his persona for the 2018 congressional election. For now, it looks like a rocky road ahead.”