Government & Politics

Cory Booker campaigns for McCaskill as she, Hawley work to shore up their bases

Possible presidential contender stumps for McCaskill

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, joined Sen. Claire McCaskill at a campaign event Saturday in Kansas City.
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Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, joined Sen. Claire McCaskill at a campaign event Saturday in Kansas City.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker launched into a poem by Langston Hughes, his father’s favorite poet, as he wound down a speech Saturday night in support of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s re-election campaign.

“O, let America be America again,” the New Jersey Democrat passionately recited. “The land that never has been yet — and yet must be— the land where every man is free.”

The campaign stop by Booker, one of only three African Americans in the Senate, comes at a time when McCaskill is trying to combat criticism that she hasn’t done enough to reach out to black voters this election.

And it comes as her likely GOP opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, face challenges of his own in shoring up support from his political base.

Hawley’s campaign was the subject of a brutal Politico article last week that saw a host of prominent Republicans airing frustrations with the way he has run his campaign for a seat that could determine control of the Senate.

Hawley slammed Booker as a "gun grabber” in fundraising emails and said in a Friday statement that it’s “no surprise that Claire McCaskill is spending her time with east coast liberal, Cory Booker — because she’s more aligned with him and other 2020 Democrats than she is with constituents in her own state.”

Missouri Senate Hawley
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley brought his Senate campaign to Raytown in March. AP file photo

Booker’s passionate speech at the Uptown Theater covered issues from the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s to the epidemic of gun violence in schools.

He argued that the United States is in the midst of a “moral moment” and that the 2018 midterm election would offer a test as "our country is calling for the conscience of our community. How will we answer the call?”

Booker said after the event that his words were not aimed solely at the African American community. He pointed to millennials as another group that will need to show up in November if Democrats want to take back the House and Senate.

"We need to put her back in the Senate," Booker said of McCaskill. "We need to give her another six years. We need to put her to work. We need her light. We need her energy. We need her heart. We need her wit. We need her grit. We need her.”

The event comes after a prolonged period of tension between McCaskill and local African American leaders who have felt overlooked during her re-election campaign.

“Our complaint is we just haven’t seen enough of her,” said Rev. Daniel Childs Jr., a former president of the Metropolitan Kansas City Baptists Ministers Union.

Childs called the rally with Booker “a move in the right direction” but said it still “doesn’t solidify her relationship with us.”

He said that the African American community wants McCaskill to make the case for what she’s done to earn its vote. “I just know that we feel ignored. That’s it,” Childs said.

'The whole state'

McCaskill has worked to dispel this perception in recent weeks.

Ahead of the Booker event, she held a meeting Saturday with Freedom Inc., a Kansas City political organization dedicated to the concerns of the African American community.

“We had a great meeting. I think we talked about the best way to message and do resources and be on the ground. I think they were excited to hear how committed this campaign is to a ground game, that isn’t going to be the airwaves that so many Senate campaigns have turned into,” McCaskill said.

She promised that she would be meeting with black leaders constantly during the campaign.

“We’re calling and talking and I’m visiting with them on a weekly basis,” she said.

“When you are a senator and you have the whole state, it’s hard. Because I can take you to just about any community in the state and they could say, you know, 'She just isn’t here enough, she just doesn’t get to the Bootheel enough,' ” she said when asked why the perception developed that she was ignoring the urban communities.

Childs pointed to U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s work in engaging the African American community as a model for McCaskill to emulate.

McCaskill previously asked Cleaver and other African American leaders to sign a letter pushing back on the idea that she’s overlooked the state’s urban centers while courting rural voters after state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, voiced this criticism.

Cleaver and the other elected officials refused.

But Cleaver’s unwavering support for McCaskill was made clear Saturday when he introduced her to the stage Saturday night and the two Missouri Democrats embraced for a hug.

“If you are sick and tired of being sick and tired, turning on the TV looking at the clown shows every day, get your cousin, your aunt, your babysitter, your barber’s cousin’s wife’s boyfriend, get them out to vote,” Cleaver said.

Missouri House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, called Booker's visit a "big deal" and said McCaskill "understands that she’s got to work within the minority communities and she’s doing everything she can to do that."

But even some of the people who lined up for McCaskill’s rally with Booker voiced concerns that she needs to do more.

“Democrats have a tendency to take their people for granted and in that process they lose the adamant support of the urban areas,” said Michael Savwoir, 69-year-old retiree from Kansas City.

Michele Watley, a Kansas City-based political consultant who ran African American outreach for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, pointed to black women, in particular, as a voting bloc that could help tip the election in McCaskill’s favor.

“They’re just an electorate that often gets overlooked, but is often responsible for winning a lot of key elections,” Watley said, pointing to Democrat Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama special election in December.

Watley earlier this year launched Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, a nonprofit group dedicated to empowering black women. She said that McCaskill filmed video remarks for the group’s March meeting and has indicated a willingness to stay engaged with the group in the future.

“Black women could be the reason for a Claire win or loss,” she said.

Hawley's hurdles

Hawley entered the race after a prolonged recruitment effort by Vice President Mike Pence and other prominent Republicans, but the effort to anoint him as the presumptive nominee has irked some grassroots activists.

Mark Anthony Jones, the chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party, complained that Hawley has been “stuffed down our throats” and said his candidacy “gives Claire a clear path to victory.”

Jones pointed to the fact that the recruitment of Hawley was spearheaded by former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth, a prominent critic of Trump.

“That’s a piece of this that nobody wants to talk about. Hawley is from that same cloth and that’s not what Missouri needs,” said Jones, an early Trump supporter who said that the president’s subsequent endorsement of Hawley hasn’t assuaged his concerns.

U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley spoke out against Hollywood, elites and the Washington D.C. “cartel” on Tuesday while campaigning at Dynamic Fastener in Raytown.

Hawley has responded to criticism from Jones and other GOP activists by attacking McCaskill.

"The reality is that Senator McCaskill is the most unpopular senator in America on a ballot this year,” Hawley said in a statement when asked about the grievances aired by other Republicans to Politico.

John Hancock, the former state Republican chair, dismissed the notion that Hawley won’t be able to unite the party behind him before November.

“The best unifier of the GOP base is Claire McCaskill and the reality for Josh Hawley is this a multi-candidate primary field and Josh is going to win the primary,” Hancock said. “I don’t think you’re going to have a Republican voter problem for Josh Hawley in the fall.”

The other Republicans in the race — Austin Petersen, Courtland Sykes and Tony Monetti — have never held elected office.

Hawley’s campaign has largely ignored their candidacies and focused on the general election matchup with McCaskill. National Republicans have done the same.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, conducted a press call Saturday on Hawley’s behalf.

Cotton, 41, tore into McCaskill for voting against the confirmation of CIA Director Gina Haspel and said he’ll be happy to see the 38-year-old Hawley replace him as the youngest member of the Senate.

Despite the backing on national Republicans, Hawley’s political fortunes could still hinge on the ongoing drama surrounding Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.

Lawmakers are weighing the governor’s impeachment based partly on an investigation conducted by Hawley’s office that found evidence the Republican governor allegedly committed a felony in obtaining a donor list from the charity he founded to fundraise for his 2016 campaign.

McCann Beatty said that now Hawley has to worry about fighting Greitens in addition to McCaskill. “It’s going to make it very difficult for him. And the saga continues,” she said.

Hawley entered the fray with Greitens again Friday when he said the governor illegally hired two private attorneys to defend against his possible impeachment at taxpayer expense without first receiving clearance from the attorney general’s office.

Hancock said that the controversy’s impact will depend on whether Greitens remains governor by the time of the election.

“If he’s Gov. Eric Greitens at that point, you’re going to have a divided GOP base. Period," Hancock said. "If he’s citizen Eric Greitens by the time November rolls around, I don’t think it’s going to have much of an impact on the election."