Four years ago, Claire McCaskill had a speaking role at the Democratic convention in Denver, a reward for her enthusiastic and early support of presidential candidate Barack Obama.
This week, the Democratic U.S. senator is ignoring her party’s convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and barely mentions the president, who is unpopular in her home state of Missouri. As she campaigns in Republican-friendly territory, McCaskill is warning supporters that she still could lose to challenger Todd Akin unless they persuade other Missourians to “vote their billfold” and help her defeat him.
Speaking at a union-organized Labor Day rally in central Springfield on Sept. 3, the freshman senator told an enthusiastic crowd that she’s “not taking any naps right now.” McCaskill, 59, is trying to take advantage of Akin’s recent troubles -- without getting confident.
“Trust me, this will be close,” McCaskill said, encouraging supporters to spend an hour or two volunteering for her campaign. “You live in southwest Missouri. I don’t need to tell you that we’re outnumbered down here.”
Her political fortunes improved Aug. 19 when Akin, 65, said in a television interview that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy, so a rape exception to a ban on abortion isn’t necessary. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called Akin’s remarks “outrageous” and joined other party leaders in trying to pressure Akin to drop his Senate bid.
McCaskill, considered one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats running for re-election this year, had decided to skip the Democratic convention before Akin made his comments. She said she wanted to focus on her campaign, and is doing such things as starting a statewide “listening tour” aimed at improving college affordability.
Republicans have been counting on McCaskill’s seat as one of four they must pick up to win control of the Senate in the Nov. 6 election. Following Akin’s comments, McCaskill has led the Republican U.S. House member in a pair of statewide polls, unlike earlier in the year when she consistently trailed Akin and two other potential Republican opponents.
“The race as it stands now went from being a pretty good bet that Republicans were going to win to not only one that they are very likely to lose but one that losing it is going to make it a lot harder to win the majority,” Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said, adding that McCaskill “got very lucky.”
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Mason-Dixon poll conducted Aug. 22-23 showed McCaskill with a 9 percentage-point lead, and a Public Policy Polling survey conducted Aug. 28-29 showed the race was virtually tied, with Akin trailing McCaskill by one percentage point.
“There’s no question that there’s been a dramatic change in the poll data, from Akin begin comfortably ahead to Akin being uncomfortably behind,” said Ken Warren, an independent pollster and political science professor at St. Louis University, a Jesuit college in downtown St. Louis.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Mason-Dixon poll provides more encouraging news for McCaskill, whose campaign strategy is that she can’t cede strongly Republican areas of the state. While the poll showed Akin garnering 50 percent or more of the vote in rural parts of the state, his support there declined from 60 percent in a poll conducted July 23-25.
In the Democratic strongholds of Kansas City and St. Louis, almost two-thirds said they now oppose Akin. Almost half, 47 percent, of voters polled statewide said Akin should withdraw from the race.
Springfield, the site of the Labor Day rally, is located in Greene County, which supported then-incumbent Republican Senator Jim Talent over McCaskill six years ago by 11 percentage points.
At the Labor Day rally Dave Trippe manned a table of yard signs and bumper stickers promoting Democratic candidates. He predicted McCaskill would beat Akin if she matches the 42.6 percent of the vote she won in Greene County in 2006, and said he was glad she skipped the convention.
“Claire needs to be here,” he said.
Akin’s comments on rape “helped seal the deal” for Springfield resident Larra Keeth, a 31-year-old mother of three who said she had been leaning toward voting for McCaskill, who she supported in 2006.
“That’s why I will probably go back with McCaskill because that was just stupid,” Keeth said at the Sept. 2 rally, referring to Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks.
McCaskill hasn’t directly addressed Akin’s comments at campaign stops, opting instead to describe a “fork in the road” that voters face Nov. 6, maintaining that Akin would lead Missourians down “a road that leads to a smaller middle class and less buying power for most Americans.”
Her message is focused on fiscal issues. She claims Akin would work to privatize Social Security and Medicare and to abolish the minimum wage and government-funded student loans.
McCaskill yesterday began a tour of college campuses across the state with an appearance at the University of Missouri in Columbia, her alma mater.
“My opponent has said very simply, very plainly and very bluntly, that the federal government needs to get completely out of the education business,” McCaskill told several dozen students in a classroom at the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs. “If we take the road where the federal government is not going to have anything to do with education, that just means one thing. That means the middle class is going to get smaller.”
Akin spokesman Ryan Hite didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Those themes may resonate in Missouri, which has lagged behind the nation’s economic recovery. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, employment in the state has declined 0.7 percent, a greater drop than any state except Nevada, according to government data compiled by Bloomberg. Over the period, personal income in Missouri has grown 8.3 percent, a slower rate than all except four other states, the data shows.
Obama, who lost Missouri to Republican John McCain by fewer than 4,000 votes in 2008, has received low marks in the state and has opted not to invest significant campaign resources there. Just 38 percent of voters statewide view Obama favorably, compared with 44 percent for Romney, according to the Aug. 22-23 St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Mason-Dixon poll.
Akin has apologized for his remarks, saying he misspoke. His campaign ran an ad Aug. 29 in which Akin contrasts what he described as a “six-second mistake” with McCaskill’s “six- year record” of supporting Obama’s policies.
The ad echoes negative spots that Republican groups have run in Missouri tying McCaskill to Obama. One, paid for by Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group that former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove helped create, claimed McCaskill “has voted with President Obama 90 percent of the time” and was the deciding vote in favor of the 2010 health care overhaul. The ad aired 858 times from May 31 to June 9, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks campaign advertising.
Following Akin’s comments, Crossroads GPS and the National Republican Senatorial Committee said they would pull their ads out of the state.
“The story is so big that Claire McCaskill doesn’t have to bring it up,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “Right now there’s no reason for Claire McCaskill to directly attack on the issue because the story has a life of its own.”
McCaskill’s campaign has received financial support from top Democrats. She had $3.5 million in cash on hand through July 18, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Through the same date, Akin had $531,600 in cash on hand, according to the commission.
McCaskill told reporters Sept. 2 that she suspected Republican funding might end up flowing to Akin in the final days of the campaign.
Her decision to stay in Missouri rather than go to the convention has received some favorable attention. Richard Lara, a 32-year-old Springfield resident who attended the Labor Day rally, said while he’s undecided about voting for McCaskill, he was impressed she didn’t go to Charlotte this week.
“That whole thing was a joke anyways,” Lara said of the convention. “To not take part in that kind of grandeur, it kind of humanizes her, makes her more humble.”
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