A paparazzo cornered Claire McCaskill last month in a hallway of her Senate office building.
Wielding a video camera for celebrity-obsessed TMZ, he wanted to know why the Democratic senator from Missouri had “grilled Dr. Oz like a cheeseburger” at a recent hearing on diet scams.
McCaskill looked bemused, but she didn’t miss a beat.
“It’s bad when a doctor says there’s a miracle pill that will let you lose weight and keep eating anything you want,” the senator said.
TMZ rarely ambushes lawmakers unless they’re embroiled in scandal. Yet for media-savvy McCaskill, the attention — even from a gossip outfit — got chalked up as a public relations win.
“We are so excited to have been TMZ-ed,” McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard enthused in an email to a reporter after the video hit the Web.
Mehmet Oz and diet scams. The General Motors auto recall. Military sexual assaults. Campus rape. Cover-ups in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Waste in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fraud in the National Guard. Mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery.
McCaskill has a knack for picking legislative projects that build her personal brand by linking it to causes that draw headlines but are rarely polarizing.
It’s a brand that was at the heart of both her Senate campaigns: the image of a thrifty former state auditor and one-time prosecutor determined to make sure taxpayers get their money’s worth.
McCaskill’s friends and supporters say any national attention she gets is a byproduct of results-oriented public service work and the fact that she’s never been one to mince words, whether in a hearing room or on Fox News.
The senator’s spokesman said McCaskill doesn’t hesitate to go to the media to wage public battles for causes she believes in.
“Claire doesn’t see the media as an adversary or a tool — but as a partner for the public good,” LaBombard said.
Still, her reputation for speaking colorfully and in the moment can give the senator’s staff heartburn. For instance, in 2006 she said on “Meet the Press” that former president Bill Clinton had been a great leader, “but I don’t want my daughter near him.” That’s also the sort of witticism that makes McCaskill a sought-after guest on political talk shows and cable news.
Beyond the sound bites and buzz, political observers note that McCaskill’s high-profile causes tend to be safe bets for a blue senator in an increasingly red state.
In choosing to focus on issues that members of both parties can support, they say, she is avoiding partisan battles. By doing so, they say, she is also dodging some of the more controversial topics of the day.
She has a far less prominent voice, for instance, on issues such as climate change or what the U.S. should do next in Iraq.
“The positions she’s taking are things that probably are less likely to totally alienate her from a whole lot of folks,” said Bob Priddy, news director of Missourinet, a statewide commercial radio network. “She goes after waste, fraud and abuse, she goes after sexual assault. … They’re things that she can go after that won’t be attacked by one side or the other.”
As a Democrat in statewide office in Missouri, McCaskill faces an obvious political challenge: how to maintain an electoral majority in a state that leans ever more Republican, said Steve Smith, political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
With that in mind, he said, McCaskill has cultivated a moderate record with care.
It’s all part of McCaskill’s effort to be seen as a Missouri senator first — and a Democrat second.
“She appears to vote against her party on spending and other bills with some frequency, seemingly most often when her party does not need her vote,” Smith said. “She ends up avoiding a reputation as a conservative but yet can claim that she is more moderate than the rest of her party.”
As part of that balancing act, he said, it behooves McCaskill to attract attention for causes that have strong appeal to some voters without alienating others.
“Taking on bad management in the federal bureaucracy, emphasizing investigations over legislation, championing clean government and reform, and staying clear of the most divisive issues when possible is a recipe for (electoral) success,” Smith said. “The senator is a classic example.”
He stressed that McCaskill can be sincere in pursuing issues she cares about while also benefiting from the strategy of choosing those issues rather than more partisan matters.
“That is what a skilled, patient legislator does,” he said.
Consider McCaskill’s role earlier this year in defeating a bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a fellow Democrat. The bill would have stripped military commanders of the power to prosecute sexual assaults and other major crimes.
McCaskill blocked that bill in favor of an alternative that would preserve commanders’ authority to convene courts-martial but require civilian review if a commander decides against a prosecution.
The policy battle drew national media attention. It put her at odds with her own party and generated blowback from some victim rights groups who accused her of betraying them.
The episode might have cost her points nationally. But to McCaskill, the audience that mattered most was in Missouri, said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University.
“My sense of that was she was protecting her base in Fort Leonard Wood, among defense contractors in St. Louis, in Air Force bases (near) Kansas City and so on,” he said. “Boy, it was a fine line. … She went pretty much toe to toe with one of her colleagues. But to me, at the heart of that was a strategy that allowed her to support women in the military and yet not alienate the brass, not alienate the military itself, and let them handle their own battles.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who worked closely with McCaskill on the military sexual assault issue, said the experience proved that McCaskill is not afraid to have the courage of her convictions.
“It’s always a challenge when you break with your own party,” she said. “But I think it’s also a mark of independence that I imagine her constituents respect.”
LaBombard said McCaskill tackles issues based not on what’s politically safe or risky, but on how important an issue is to Missouri, whether it’s getting enough public attention and whether she believes she can make a real difference.
He passed along McCaskill’s own response by email. It was a characteristic combination of blunt but funny, the perfect quote:
“If I have been trying to avoid controversy in my career, I’ve been very bad at it.”