Call it “McCaskill’s miracle.”
Considered a likely loser just three months ago, Democrat Claire McCaskill was swept to victory Tuesday over Republican Todd Akin in Missouri’s tumultuous and closely watched U.S. Senate race.
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“You know, 18 months ago, there was a lot of the political chattering class spouting a lot of information about the Senate race in Missouri,” McCaskill told cheering supporters at her victory rally. “And they all said it’s over, it’s done, it’s just too red. There is no way that Claire McCaskill can survive. You know what happened? You proved them wrong.”
McCaskill’s prospects were regarded as dubious until Akin’s momentous Aug. 19 television interview in St. Louis, in which he shockingly remarked that raped women have the biological ability to ward off pregnancy.
By nightfall that day, the comments had gone viral on social media sites, and within days leading Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, were calling on Akin to withdraw.
Just that quickly, McCaskill, a backer of President Barack Obama’s health care plan, which had proved highly unpopular in Missouri, was suddenly back in the game.
For the 59-year-old former Jackson County prosecutor, the turn of good fortune marked the second election in a row that Republican opponents had unexpectedly boosted her prospects.
In late October 2006, conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh accused actor Michael J. Fox of “exaggerating the effects” of his Parkinson’s disease in a 30-second TV ad for McCaskill. That comment sparked indignation nationwide, and some Democrats said it contributed to her three-point victory over Jim Talent.
She said this year’s campaign proved even more grueling than any of her other 10 in a political career that began in a Waldo neighborhood state representative race exactly 30 years ago.
The ups and downs of her re-election prospects — she spent far more time as the underdog than as the favorite — were momentarily overshadowed by the Oct. 29 death of her mother, whose passing, McCaskill said the day she died, created “a hole in my life that will never be filled.”
Democratic insiders acknowledged that McCaksill likely wouldn’t have won Tuesday if Akin hadn’t uttered his comments about rape victims. But McCaskill downplayed their significance. If he hadn’t said those words, she said, “It would’ve been something else.”
As the campaign was winding down, The Star spent the final days behind-the-scenes of one of the most talked-about races in the nation, as seen through McCaskill’s eyes:
April 29, 2011:
The race has hardly begun, and already McCaskill is experiencing a moment so troubling that 18 months later, she calls it her darkest hour.
The League of Women Voters, a group McCaskill regards as dependably Democratic, is up with a TV ad in Missouri that rips her for supporting an amendment that halts fines on carbon dioxide pollution. The ad features a little girl coloring a picture and tethered to a breathing machine.
“Shouldn’t Claire McCaskill protect the people and not the polluters?” an announcer intones.
The far right, including a group involving former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove, already has spent millions to drive up her negatives. Now the left is after her, too.
“That was brutal,” McCaskill said later. “I thought, ‘Holy cow. How in the world am I going to get through this if the money on the left and the money on the right are lined up against me?’”
Businessman John Brunner, one of the three leading GOP primary opponents, is making McCaskill nervous. He’s showing a willingness to spend millions of his personal fortune on his campaign. To make matters worse from McCaskill’s perspective, Brunner has no record because he’s never held office before.
“That’s a little scary,” McCaskill said.
Still, McCaskill isn’t convinced that Brunner will win the Aug. 7 GOP primary.
McCaskill gambles. In what may have been the pivotal moment in the race, the Democrat dumps hundreds of thousands of dollars into three TV ads that seek to define the leading Republicans 21/2 weeks before the primary. McCaskill spends the most on the ad against Akin, whom many believe she has the best chance of defeating.
The Akin spot calls him “the most conservative congressman in Missouri” and “a crusader against bigger government.” Both are qualities that appeal to GOP voters.
Looking back at it, McCaskill is reticent to reveal much about her strategy, other than to call it a “common sense” move.
“I had an uneasy sense that if we didn’t begin to define them, I was going to find myself in a hole we couldn’t get out of,” she said.
University of Missouri-Columbia political scientist Peverill Squire believes McCaskill engineered who her fall opponent would be “to a greater degree and in a more transparent way than anything we can think of in recent memory.”
Akin easily wins the primary with 36 percent support to Brunner’s 30 percent.
“I want to give thanks to God our creator who has blessed this campaign, heard your prayers and answered them with victory,” Akin says at his victory celebration.
McCaskill notes that the contrast between the two would be stark. She describes Akin as “somebody who believes that Pell Grants and the federal government having some involvement in helping kids get to college is third-stage cancer.” She describes herself as “somebody who believes (such aid) has distinguished us from the rest of the world.”
Pollster SurveyUSA shows Akin with a commanding lead — 51 percent to 40 percent — despite predictions that the race would be closer.
McCaskill’s response: Her own pollster has it closer, and she relies more on him.
On a Sunday morning news show on St. Louis’ KTVI-TV, the staunchly anti-abortion Akin is asked if there are circumstances where the procedure is appropriate.
He mentions the case of a tubal pregnancy endangering the mother. Then, unprompted, he speaks of rape with the words heard ’round the world:
“It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
At home in St. Louis, McCaskill and her campaign aren’t expecting much from the interview. Reporter Charles Jaco typically promotes his programs with the most intriguing comments. This time, he spotlights Akin’s remarks on voting rights legislation.
McCaskill doesn’t even watch the show when it airs, preferring to enjoy a Sunday morning with a couple dozen members of her family — grandchildren included — over for her husband’s traditional breakfast grits.
“It was, you know, the wonderful, warm chaos of Sunday mornings at my house, which is such a cocoon for me,” McCaskill recalled about that morning.
About an hour after the broadcast, the senator receives a “tracking report,” a staffer’s summary of the interview. The report includes the words “legitimate rape.”
“As I was reading it, I said, ‘Huh? He said that?’ ”
She sends an email to her media aides with a simple instruction: “Push it,” meaning send it out to other reporters around the state.
By late afternoon, social media has stirred a media frenzy.
“Clearly it was not a misstatement,” McCaskill said.
A political firestorm engulfs Akin. Romney calls for him to withdraw. So does Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and former senators Jim Talent, Kit Bond, John Ashcroft and Jack Danforth.
Akin insists he’s not going anywhere. “Let me just make it clear: We’re not getting out of this race.”
McCaskill is tormented. Unsure of Akin’s plans and who would take his place if he withdraws, McCaskill is forced to watch and listen.
“My heart told me he wouldn’t (drop out). My head said: How can he withstand this? I was so nervous about it. You spend a year planning for one of three candidates, then all of a sudden it could be someone completely different.”
Akin’s campaign begins to show new signs of life as it moves past the deadline for removing his name from the ballot. Blunt reverses course and backs him. The Missouri GOP joins in.
McCaskill’s response: A tough new statewide TV ad that points to Akin’s rape remarks with a narrator asking, “What will he say next?”
In the second of two debates, McCaskill accuses Akin of paying his female congressional staffers 23 percent less than his male staffers while Akin charges that McCaskill just wants to raise taxes.
He compares her to a magician who says, “Look over here while I put my hand in your pocket.”
McCaskill is in Springfield when her cellphone rings at 10:30 p.m. It’s her sister calling to report their mother is struggling to breathe and they’re headed to the emergency room.
“OK,” McCaskill responded. “Call as soon as you get there.”
A short time later, McCaskill’s phone rings again. She’s soon on the line with the doctor. “I said, ‘How bad is she?’ And he said, ‘She’s very bad.’ ”
“If you were me and it was your mother, would you come tonight?” McCaskill asked. Yes, the doctor said. “I’d come right now.”
McCaskill sped into the night up Interstate 44 to St. Louis, arriving at the hospital at 3 a.m. For the next week, with the exception of one day, McCaskill is at her mother’s bedside as the campaign rages on without her.
However, she’s at peace with the sudden change in plans.
“I just focused on Mom,” McCaskill said. “Spending that time with her was way more important than winning the race.”
Early in the afternoon, Betty Anne McCaskill, the 84-year-old fireball whom the senator once described as her secret weapon, dies. McCaskill issues a brief statement: “While we know she’s finally at peace, our family and her friends will all miss her so very much.”
7 p.m. Thursday
. Three days later, a seemingly unfazed McCaskill is back on the campaign trail. She bursts into a south Kansas City union hall with a cheery, “Hey, guys!”
At least 100 volunteers are there, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver introduces McCaskill in a fire-up-the-troops rally. “On all the issues, we are right,” Cleaver thunders.
When it’s her turn to speak, McCaskill says her mother would have urged her daughter to “get out and talk to the workers who make the difference at election time.”
Afterwards, she’s asked how difficult the week has been.
“I feel a little lost,” she confesses. “But I’m glad that I got to listen to her lecture me at least two or three more times about, ‘Why aren’t you in rural Missouri?’ and ‘What do the polls look like?’
“So even at the end, she was pushing me and lifting me and loving me in a very, very special way, and I treasure that.”
9:30 a.m. Friday
: Back on the offensive, McCaskill is outside the offices of the Full Employment Council, 1740 the Paseo. Her topic: the minimum wage, which Akin opposes.
“I honesty never thought I’d be in a race for the Untied States Senate (against) someone in Missouri who believed we should abolish the minimum wage,” she said.
Then she’s off to St. Joseph.
3 p.m. Friday
: A nostalgic McCaskill is back in “my old neighborhood” at East 74th and Cherry streets knocking on doors. “This is where it started 30 years ago,” she tells a group of young volunteers who were all smiles and eagerness.
In this neighborhood in 1982, McCaskill won her first political race for the old 42nd District state representative seat. She remembers exactly how many doors she knocked on that campaign — 11,432. “But who was counting?” she quipped.
Back then, it was often McCaskill on one side of the street and her mother or father on the other. They left little notepads with her name printed across the top, designed for placement near the telephone.
On this day, McCaskill is ebullient, excited that the race is nearly over and “fairly” confident of a win. She’s pleased with the reception she got from the few homeowners who answered their doors.
“You are an amazing woman,” said Jeff Cohen, a retired East 73rd Terrace homeowner who recalled McCaskill knocking on his door nearly three decades ago.
McCaskill is walking on buckled sidewalks in a pair of flimsy-looking high-heels. But she’s flying so high she’s not bothered. “They’re deceptively comfortable,” she said.
She signs a Captain America figure for a boy after an aide tracks down a Sharpie. “Who says this is not a well-oiled machine?” she chortles. “We have a Sharpie!”
9:45 a.m. Saturday:
McCaskill is in Columbia talking get-out-the-vote strategy. “There is a grand organization to this,” the senator tells about 20 staff members and volunteers crammed into a campaign office. “We are going to turn out a vote that will translate into actual differences in the margin (of victory) Tuesday.”
3 p.m. Sunday:
Two days before Election Day in downtown St. Louis, McCaskill bids a final farewell to a mother who was “the sun, the moon and the stars” and a frequent co-star in the senator’s campaign ads.
In an upbeat, joyous tribute featuring a 50-member Baptist choir and a four-piece band, the senator says her mother loved Missouri and “Missouri loved her back.”
In attendance were Gov. Jay Nixon, former Sen. Jean Carnahan, former Rep. Dick Gephardt and Blunt.
The family intended for the gathering to be a “party” because that’s what their mother would have wanted. The cover of the program is a photograph of Betty Anne in a swimming pool smoking a cigar. The service begins with a rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” and ends with rousing versions of “Oh Happy Day” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
The crowd laughs when McCaskill tells the story of what her mother would instruct them to say as children at Halloween: “Trick or treat and vote for JFK.”
McCaskill also talks about “a good ol’ boy” in the Bootheel who told her this year that she faced a tough re-election fight.
“Any suggestions?” the senator asked him.
“Are you going to be campaigning with your mother?” he told her. “She’s a lot more popular than you are.”
That night, the senator admits to “so many conflicting emotions.” “Part of me,” she says in a quiet voice, “wants to withdraw and be alone because this is a time of intense grieving.”
But that wasn’t an option.
“I feel intense pressure because of who she was to get this done. And I feel intense pressure because of who Akin is Honestly, losing the election would not be the end of the world for so many reasons. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that the notion of Todd Akin taking the seat on the floor of the United States Senate to speak for the state I love is kind of hard for me to get my arms around because he has such a narrow view and such a rigid ideology that I think leaves a lot of people out.”
The final day. One more barnstorm: Columbia, Springfield, Kansas City, Clay County, St. Louis.
“Pizza! Dig in!” McCaskill says as she walks into her East 63rd Street Kansas City headquarters with a stack of pizza boxes.
A caveat: “I didn’t bring napkins.”
She turns to face about a dozen volunteers. She thanks them and talks about the 1,500 volunteer shifts scheduled for the next 24 hours aimed at getting Democrats to the polls.
She pauses. The race, she says, has had its ups and downs. It’s been “a real roller coaster ride.”
On Tuesday evening, voters gave her a ticket to ride for another six years.
“There is one person missing from this stage tonight,” McCaskill said. “I’ve just got to tell you, Mom, this one’s for you.”