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November 15th, 2019

Insight

Does the most vulnerable Dem senator have one last magic trick to prevent a GOP majority?

 David Von Drehle

By David Von Drehle The Washington Post

Published Oct. 24, 2018

Does the most vulnerable Dem senator have one last magic trick to prevent a GOP majority?
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Fans of old-fashioned political gamesmanship recall the virtuoso turn by Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Democrat who spent more than $1.5 million on the Republican primary in 2012. Like Brer Rabbit pleading not to be thrown into the briar patch, McCaskill "warned" opposition voters not to pick hard-line conservative Todd Akin to run against her. Naturally, the more ads she bought to denounce Akin for being too far right, the more primary votes he attracted. Akin won the nomination, then blew the election with a series of dunderheaded mistakes and bizarre pronouncements - just as McCaskill suspected he would.


That's one way for a Democrat to survive in an increasingly Republican state. But it's the sort of gambit that only works once. Six years later, McCaskill is back on the ballot, seeking a third term - this time through plain old hard work. It's not clear that will be enough: President Donald Trump carried Missouri by 19 percentage points in 2016, and Republican elders handpicked a challenger who is about as mistake-prone as IBM's Watson.


Together, these two factors make McCaskill one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the Senate. And whatever faint hopes the Democrats still cherish of winning a majority in that chamber on Nov. 6 dwindle to nil if she can't hold her seat.


McCaskill, 65, is up against a bright young man with large ambitions named Josh Hawley, Missouri's attorney general for what seems like about 15 minutes. Though he promised voters in 2016 that he had no immediate plans to pursue higher office, the pledge had the staying power of instructions at the start of a "Mission: Impossible" movie.

You can't blame his party for boosting him up the ladder. Hawley, 38, has clear eyes, hair that appears parted with a laser-guided comb and the sort of photo-ready family you might see inside a store-bought picture frame. Below the surface is a résumé to match. He attended the same elite Catholic boys school in Kansas City that produced Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., then dazzled professors at Stanford University on his way to Yale Law School. Elite clerkships, including a term at the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts, might have marked him fo


r a lifetime of appellate law. But the case he was most interested in arguing was his own. And he does it very effectively. Though Hawley embraces the voluable Trump, who has been to Missouri three times already to campaign for him, he eschews Trump's style of blunt force trauma in favor of a more polished approach.


On the air, Hawley supporters bash McCaskill as a rich, out-of-touch hypocrite, but Hawley didn't go there during their debate last week in St. Louis. Instead, he repeatedly thanked McCaskill for her many years of public service while concluding almost sorrowfully that the eons have turned her into just another "party-line liberal." He moved easily from his lectern to draw near to each audience member who stood to ask a question and took particular interest in getting their names right.


The thing is, it's hard to outflank McCaskill in this down-to-earth business. Though total spending on this campaign is likely to soar past $100 million, the centerpiece of McCaskill's strategy has been a string of more than 50 town hall meetings that have taken her to cities, burgs and hamlets all over the Show Me State. A campaign video shows her driving herself to one such meeting after baking cookies for her grandchildren.

In many of these sessions, she's courting the Trump-McCaskill voter - an elusive creature, one might think, though polls suggest there are enough to make this a very close race. This strategy is based on her oft-stated belief that people respect a candidate who will come to them in person - especially a candidate with whom they disagree. But the approach raises two questions for her: Is there enough of this species to return her to the Senate? And will her dogged pursuit of the middle sap enthusiasm from her Democratic base in the major cities that bookend the state, St. Louis and Kansas City?


As for issues: Health care, health care, health care. McCaskill charges Hawley with dangerous grandstanding in his lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Hawley claims McCaskill is a hidebound liberal in her defense of Obamacare. In their debate they sparred over Trump's border wall - though they agreed on the need for more border security - and parted ways on the wisdom of tariffs. "China started it," Hawley said of Trump's trade war. "But if we're going to be in a trade war, we better win it."


But in these closing weeks, the campaign isn't really about issues. It's about whether a competent Republican can win in this solidly GOP state - or will Claire McCaskill pull one more rabbit from her hat?

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