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Steve Kraske: In her new book, Sen. Claire McCaskill tells of a woman’s career in the man’s world of politics

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri reveals in a new autobiography, “Plenty Ladylike,” that she coached Republican Todd Akin’s campaign in his primary battle in 2012 in hopes of having a weaker opponent in the general election. It worked.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri reveals in a new autobiography, “Plenty Ladylike,” that she coached Republican Todd Akin’s campaign in his primary battle in 2012 in hopes of having a weaker opponent in the general election. It worked. File photo

The story of the 2012 U.S. Senate race in Missouri that saw Democrat Claire McCaskill run TV ads aimed at boosting the primary prospects of Republican Todd Akin already is the stuff of political legend.

Now McCaskill reveals in a new autobiography, “Plenty Ladylike,” that her campaign helped Akin in another way that proved pivotal to him winning the GOP nomination that year and becoming the one opponent McCaskill thought she could beat.

Six days before the primary, McCaskill sent word to the Akin camp through back channel sources that he needed to get an ad featuring former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee endorsing Akin back on the air.

The Akin camp, which lacked money for polling, had pulled the ad off television even though it was helping propel Akin in a tough three-way primary against John Brunner and Sarah Steelman.

The Huckabee ad was particularly effective because it featured the conservative endorsing Akin while looking directly into the camera. Huckabee had narrowly lost the 2008 Missouri presidential primary by less than 2 percentage points to John McCain.

“If he gets the Huckabee ad back up by Friday, he’s going to win,” McCaskill said she told one Republican friend.

That wasn’t the end of it. The same day, after the message was delivered, the Akin campaign called seeking to speak to McCaskill’s pollster. Permission granted.

“Three hours later, the ad was back up,” and the rest is history.

Akin won the primary and a few days later uttered his famous “legitimate rape” remark that torpedoed his campaign and allowed McCaskill to win a second term.

“This was the most fun I’d had in a long time,” McCaskill writes. Early forecasts had rated her a likely loser in 2012.

The story of the 2012 race is but one focus of “Plenty Ladylike,” written with former St. Louis Post-Dispatch statehouse correspondent Terry Ganey. Another is the story of McCaskill’s political career and her struggle to rise to the top of her profession as a woman in what was still largely a man’s world.

That McCaskill triumphed is the result of two distinct yet related factors. The first was the unwavering support she received from her parents, particularly her mother, Betty Anne, who was deeply invested in Missouri politics, lost a race for state lawmaker but served on the Columbia City Council.

“I would not be who I am without her,” McCaskill said.

The second is McCaskill’s unbridled ambition that saw her starting to dream of becoming Missouri’s first female governor when she was in the ninth grade. That was the year she won an American Legion speech contest with a talk about the Ku Klux Klan and experienced “the incredible high” that came via thunderous applause at the speech’s end.

A few years later, when she was a high school senior, McCaskill failed to make the cheerleading team even though she had been a cheerleader all through junior high and high school. She rebounded by waging a campaign for homecoming queen, which she won.

“Although I wanted others to believe I won because I was popular, in fact I had carried out an effective political operation by identifying a constituency and working hard to gain its support,” she writes.

That she was able to merge her ambition with her womanhood proved to be a struggle she overcame even in an era when the two were still seen as incompatible.

“A woman cannot come on too strong,” she writes. “She must be tough, but also communicate her ability to be caring. A woman cannot be cocky. She must be strong, but also vulnerable enough that people can relate to her. It’s a tightrope.”

The book’s title comes from a comment Akin made at a 2012 debate when he noted that McCaskill had been more “ladylike” when she ran against Jim Talent for Senate in 2006. That remark, she said, was yet another attempt to keep her in her place just as others over the years had called her a “whore” and a “commie babe liberal.”

Some of those names came at her during her political baptism by fire in the Missouri statehouse. McCaskill won her first political race for state representative in 1982, and it didn’t take long before she learned that sexism reigned in the halls of power. There she endured male colleagues who ostracized her from their cliques and who accused her of sleeping around while also sidling up to ask if she wanted to “party.”

“I spent more time behind closed doors in my office crying than people realized at the time,” she said.

Before long, she was battling legendary House speaker Bob Griffin, who denied her a chairmanship because of her independence. He also once asked her if she had brought her knee pads when she approached him asking for advice on how to get one of her bills out of committee.

Another nemesis was Missouri Sen. Richard Webster, a Republican who once killed all her bills because of a dispute over the funding for the attorney general’s office. McCaskill and others thought the funding was exorbitant. Webster was incensed, perhaps because the holder of that office was his son.

“I made a decision to laugh at all the sexual harassment, but to this day I’m not sure that was the right response,” she said.

The book’s dramatic highlight is McCaskill’s telling of how she arrived at the idea of running smoke screen ads on Akin’s behalf in the 2012 primary. The idea, she said, was to use reverse psychology and tell Republican voters not to vote for him because he’s too conservative.

The gamble was that the state’s uberconservative voters who dominate party primaries would take the bait — and they did.

McCaskill said her campaign wound up spending more for Akin in the final two weeks of the race than he spent the entire campaign.

“If it worked, some would call it political genius,” she wrote. “If it failed, and especially if I went on to lose in November, it would be called the stupidest thing I had ever done.”

McCaskill promised her daughters that she would “shotgun” a beer if Akin wound up the primary winner.

She kept her promise.

“I did it,” she writes about the process of poking a hole in the side of a can of beer so it gushes into one’s mouth. “And we laughed until we cried.”

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

McCaskill event

Sen. Claire McCaskill will talk about her book and sign copies at 2 p.m. Aug. 16 at Unity Temple on the Plaza. Books will be available for purchase from Rainy Day Books for $26, which includes admission for two to the event.

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