U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri warned at a town hall event Thursday that Democrats should not dismiss the justifiable anger that many of President Donald Trump’s supporters feel.
McCaskill, a Democrat running for re-election next year in a state that Trump won by double digits, said that she found the results of the November election humbling and urged fellow Democrats to seek to understand the anger that fueled Trump’s rise rather than deriding it.
“I’ve told my colleagues in Washington who are from very blue places when I hear them talk with disrespect toward Trump voters, I tell them to stop. Stop! The people who voted for Donald Trump in my state, they feel pain,” she said. “They wanted a disruptor.”
McCaskill faced a friendly crowd of roughly 400 people at Park University in Parkville, but she was also acutely aware that in many other parts of Missouri, which she called ruby red, she’d receive a much cooler welcome.
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“There are so many Missourians who take a shower after work who feel they’ve been forgotten, who feel like they’ve been left behind, who feel like everything that’s good in America is not really lining up with them,” McCaskill said. “And they’re frustrated and angry and mad. And I get it. I really get it now.”
McCaskill said that Democrats need to remind voters that they’re the ones fighting to increase the minimum wage and to protect Teamsters’ pensions from cuts — something that has been proposed to keep the retirement fund for unionized truck drivers solvent.
“We can bail out big guys on Wall Street, but we can’t bail out a pension fund for hard working people who are giving it their all?” McCaskill asked to applause from a group of Teamsters in the audience.
Cynthia Neuenschwander McDaniel, a Kansas City woman whose husband is a Teamster, said she appreciated McCaskill’s commitment to the issue.
“Our fund will go broke in about 10 years, so we need to get this reversed,” Neuenschwander McDaniel said.
McCaskill touched on a host of topics during the hourlong event — from the collapse of the Republican-backed health care bill, which she panned as a tax cut, to her vote in favor of the controversial Keystone Pipeline, which she defended as being motivated by her desire to create jobs.
She lamented that the White House has not sought input from Democrats on health care or tax reform, but said that she’d be willing to work toward common ground with Trump if possible.
McCaskill repeatedly chided Republicans in the Missouri delegation for not engaging in town halls, noting that she had faced angry crowds eight years ago when Democrats were pushing through the Affordable Care Act.
“I think some of my Republican colleagues are hiding and don’t want to come out to do town halls. … It is shocking to me that there are members of Congress who have never done a town hall. I want to tell them that you should’ve come with me in 2009.
“It would’ve been easy to hide under the desk in 2009 because people were really upset. And I knew that when I went out there, I was going to get yelled out. And I did,” she said. “But I learned, and I think people understood that I was willing to encounter conflict and people who didn’t like me and people who disagreed with me.”
McCaskill’s comments appear to be a dig at U.S. Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Ann Wagner, two Republicans who have been speculated as potential challengers to McCaskill in 2018.
Wagner, a Ballwin Republican, pushed back on the criticism in a statement and attacked McCaskill for opposing the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last week.
“I believe what makes you unfit for office is when you don’t represent Missouri values; and Sen. McCaskill’s vote against Justice Gorsuch last week told millions of Missourians that she simply doesn’t share their values,” she said.
Hartzler’s office dismissed town halls as unproductive in February, but did not respond to McCaskill’s comments Thursday.
Wagner has raised $2.7 million in campaign funds as she mulls the challenge to McCaskill.
McCaskill’s campaign team announced Thursday evening that she has raised $2.8 million in the first three months of 2017 and has $3 million total in her campaign coffers at this point.
McCaskill warned the attendees in Parkville about the influence that dark money would have on the 2018 race, encouraging them to ignore any ads from organizations that do not disclose their donors even if they support her. She also joked that from political groups seeking to oust her, Missourians could expect to see “a lot of fat, ugly pictures of me next year.”
McCaskill said during an interview at The Kansas City Star later Thursday that if Democrat Hillary Clinton had been elected, she might not have planned to seek a third term in the Senate, but that she remains fully committed to the race after Trump’s victory in 2016.
“What happened in November kind of lit me on fire,” she said. “If you look at the election results, yes, Donald Trump won by a huge margin, but (Democrat) Jason Kander only lost by 3 (to Republican Sen. Roy Blunt). So it wasn’t, I don’t believe, a fundamental party shift.”
During the town hall, McCaskill repeatedly asserted her credentials as a moderate, bemoaning the increased polarization of American politics. She said that people on both sides seek sources of affirmation rather than information.
“You’ve got Breitbart. You’ve got Daily Kos,” McCaskill said. She encouraged the crowd to read newspapers and rhetorically asked how the nation can agree on anything “if we can’t agree on what the facts are.”
Austin Stukins, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, questioned McCaskill’s credentials as a moderate and called her town halls “dog and pony shows” in a statement Thursday.
“Claire McCaskill is traveling the state trying to pull the wool over Missourians’ eyes and posing as a moderate — but her record in Washington tells a different story,” he said. “Claire McCaskill has joined her fellow Washington liberals in obstructing President Trump at every turn, including voting to filibuster Justice Neil Gorsuch.”
McCaskill’s comparison of The Daily Kos, a liberal blog that has helped raise money for Democrats, to Breitbart, a website that has been accused of promoting white nationalism and was previously run by Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon, angered many progressives on social media, an indication that the senator will also face pressure from the left going into 2018.
Chris Reeves, a blogger for The Daily Kos who writes about politics in Kansas and Missouri, said he resented the comparison.
“The characterization is a fairly outlandish effort to create a supposed equal standing, and it’s rubbish. Daily Kos will openly force out articles with factual untruths; something Breitbart doesn’t do, and at times we’ve been the only people on the ground in Missouri state house races. So as a Daily Kos leader and member of the DNC, I’m incredibly disappointed by this attack on her own allies and her comparison which is wrong,” said Reeves, who serves as Kansas’ Democratic National Committeeman.
McCaskill noted the uproar over the comment in a meeting with The Star’s editorial board later that day. She said she was simply intending to point out that people on the two sides of the political divide are not getting the same information and did not mean it as a criticism of the site.