If Claire McCaskill decides to run for Missouri governor in 2016, she made sure Thursday to place some distance between herself and one of her party’s chief lightning rods.
In a move that caught Washington by surprise, the Democratic senator from Missouri opposed Harry Reid for Senate minority leader.
In doing so, she became the first of a small cadre of Democrats who publicly opposed the longtime leader of their party.
McCaskill knew going into the vote that Reid, of Nevada, would go on to win another term. So she knew her action could mean losing out on committee assignments and other perks.
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But Reid is the same person mocked relentlessly by Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Republicans nationwide this fall as the man most responsible for Beltway gridlock.
On Thursday morning, McCaskill told reporters she had met with Reid the day before and told him she would not back him again.
“I heard the voters of Missouri loud and clear,” McCaskill said in a statement. “They want change in Washington. Common sense tells me that begins with changes in leadership.”
That McCaskill sought to separate herself from Reid so publicly is one reason many quickly interpreted her move as yet another sign that she is considering a 2016 run for governor or maybe laying the groundwork for another Senate run in 2018.
“For a Democrat in a state that tends to the right, being tied to Harry Reid is not a positive,” said Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri political scientist.
Surrounded by reporters after the vote, McCaskill dismissed the speculation as groundless.
“At this point, I could brush my teeth and it would increase speculation about whether I was running for governor of Missouri,” she said.
McCaskill, first elected to the Senate in 2006, said she was not the only Democrat to air discontent with the status quo before Thursday’s vote by the Democratic caucus.
“There were a lot of voices in there, and it was not a unified voice,” she said. “It was a lot of consternation. … Reid took it really well and I didn’t feel ostracized.
“People came up to me afterward and said, ‘You said things that needed to be said.’”
A handful of other Democrats from Republican or Republican-leaning states — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia — told reporters they also had opposed Reid after McCaskill made her postion public.
“I just thought we needed change,” Manchin said.
McCaskill predicted that Senate Democrats are headed toward introspection and outreach to Republicans, who will command the chamber next year.
In that spirit, McCaskill on Wednesday had lunch with her Missouri colleague, Republican Roy Blunt, who was re-elected Thursday to GOP leadership as vice chairman of the party’s caucus. McCaskill told reporters she will work with Republicans “when they do things I agree with, and I’m going to fight Republicans when they’re doing things that I think are damaging.”
Blunt declined to talk in detail about what he described as a private conversation. But he said the pair discussed events in Ferguson, Mo. — the site of ongoing turmoil after a white police officer shot an unarmed black man — and legislation that would affect Missouri. The two senators have a history of cooperating on state issues.
Blunt said the votes of red-state and moderate Democrats like McCaskill will be highly sought in the Republican Senate. With a Republican majority of likely 54 Republicans and with 60 votes needed to overcome threats of bill-stalling filibusters, Blunt said winning over six Democrats will be a daily chore for the GOP.
“Red-state Democrats and purple Democrats should look at the last election and figure out how they can best get work done,” Blunt said.
As for McCaskill’s vote against Reid, Blunt said that “apparently neither of us believe that Harry Reid has been doing a good job.”
Even before her vote Thursday, McCaskill has hinted that she is considering the governor’s race. Those hints include nearly $500,000 in donations to Missouri Democrats this year for legislative races. Those close to her say she has long wanted to be the state’s first woman governor. She ran for governor in 2004 and lost to Republican Matt Blunt.
Attorney General Chris Koster, the early front-runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination, has seen his stock downgraded in the wake of a recent New York Times story that said campaign contributions had influenced his decision-making.
Missouri Republicans may nominate a woman, former Missouri House speaker Catherine Hanaway, to be their 2016 gubernatorial nominee. McCaskill might be a better opponent, some Democrats said, than the seemingly wounded Koster.
Steve Glorioso, a longtime Kansas City political consultant close to McCaskill, said the pressure on her to run for governor will increase dramatically if Koster “continues to take on baggage.”
Democrats, he said, won’t be eager to see Missouri become “a completely right-wing state.” Glorioso added that Koster still may prove to be a formidable candidate.
That Hillary Clinton is expected by many to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2016 was not lost on anyone Thursday. Missouri could elect its first female chief executive that year as well.