Government & Politics

VP Pence tears into McCaskill, shrugs off disruptions at KC event

Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly tore into U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill at a raucous event Wednesday in Kansas City that highlighted both the stark political division in the country and the role the region will have in deciding which party controls Congress next year.

Pence had barely begun his speech to more than 550 people at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown before a man jumped up and began yelling, “Mike, where are the children? Shame on you!” in reference to the separation of children from their families at the southern border.

The rest of the crowd — made up of Republican supporters from both sides of the state line — shouted “USA!” as police escorted the man out. Moments later, another heckler rose and the scene repeated itself. Outside the hotel, protesters gathered in nearby Barney Allis Plaza.

One of the men said in an email to The Star that he was given a trespassing warning after being escorted out of the event. He asked not to be identified by name, but said his goal was to confront "one of our leaders with the plain facts of their human rights abuses."

In his wide-ranging speech, Pence promised that the administration would oppose any efforts to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and touted an increase of military spending that President Donald Trump has signed.

Pence also promoted Trump's 2017 tax cuts, which was the official purpose of the event. But the larger theme of Pence's remarks and the other speeches was the GOP's efforts to keep control of Congress in the upcoming election.

"These aren't your parents' liberals anymore. I mean, the truth is the Democratic Party's gone further to the left than ever before and you need to look only at Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill," Pence said.

Pence devoted several minutes to Missouri's Senate race, which could determine which party controls the chamber next year.

He heaped praise on Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, who welcomed him to the stage, and repeatedly attacked McCaskill over her votes against Trump’s tax plan and against the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

He called on the crowd to pressure McCaskill to support Trump's new nominee to the high court, federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

"The choice before Sen. Claire McCaskill is whether she's going to stand with (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer and her obstructionist party or whether she's going to stand with the people of Missouri and support the most qualified and most deserving nominee to the Supreme Court," said Pence, who helped recruit Hawley into the race.

McCaskill told The Star on Wednesday that she would use the same criteria to evaluate Kavanaugh as she does every judicial nominee.

"So it’s a matter of going over his written work, going over his speeches, going over his resume," she said. "... So this will be no different than what I’ve done on every nomination that has been named by the president.”

Pence's comments about the court dovetailed with an ad campaign launched by Hawley this week that focuses on the Supreme Court vacancy. The issue also was the center of Hawley's speech as he welcomed Pence to the stage Wednesday.

"The Supreme Court is the last thing between us and the radical left's attempts to remake our country," Hawley told the crowd.

The Trump administration has put its full-throated support behind Hawley ahead of next month’s primary.

The Cass County Republican Party on Wednesday posted an invitation on its website for a Hawley fundraising event that will feature an appearance by Trump. Hawley declined to confirm Wednesday the event is happening, even though the county party's announcement is signed "Josh."

"We always love to have the president any time he can come and the vice president being here, I think, is a big, big deal," Hawley said. "And the vice president today highlighting that the Supreme Court is such a defining issue, that Claire McCaskill will not say to her constituents what her criteria are, how she will vote, is absolutely unbelievable."

McCaskill's campaign spokesman Eric Mee said in an email that instead of attacking McCaskill, "who works across the aisle to get things done for Missouri families, Josh Hawley and Vice President Pence should have been explaining why the President is jeopardizing thousands of Missouri jobs with this Administration's reckless trade war and why his tax bill gave a massive windfall to the pharmaceutical drug companies when they haven't lowered the price of a single prescription drug."

Mee also noted that McCaskill has voted for two-thirds of Trump's judicial nominations.

A official transcript of Pence's speech released by the White House includes boos from the crowd when McCaskill's name was mentioned, but omits the two disruptions to Pence's speech.

The campaign-style event in Kansas City was organized by America First Policies, a nonprofit that was set up last year to advance Trump’s agenda. Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, was among the key figures in the group’s formation.

Pence’s visit to Missouri comes a day after state Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission alleging that Ayers violated Missouri ethics laws while running former Gov. Eric Greitens’ 2016 campaign.

Ayers has denied the allegations in Barnes’ complaint, which also involve Greitens’ political nonprofit, A New Missouri Inc.

The event in Kansas City coincided with a $1,000-a-plate closed-door fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder at a separate, undisclosed location. Couples could pay $5,400 for a photograph with Pence.

Yoder, a Johnson County Republican, did not join Pence in Kansas City, choosing to remain in Washington for a House Appropriations Committee meeting. He posted a photo to Twitter Wednesday morning of him seeing the vice president to his plane in Washington.

Despite Yoder’s absence, the vice president’s decision to hold a fundraiser on his behalf is a signal of the importance that Yoder’s re-election in Kansas’ 3rd District holds for national Republicans as they try keep control of the U.S. House.

Pence said during his speech at the public event that Yoder is "working hard to advance the president's agenda.”

He also acknowledged two of candidates seeking the GOP nomination for governor in Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Gov. Jeff Colyer, both of whom were in the audience. Pence said Kobach's name first, and the applause from the crowd made it difficult to hear Pence's recognition of the sitting governor.

The president has not officially endorsed either man ahead of the primary, but his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., will headline a fundraiser for Kobach next week in Wichita.

Asked whether the association between Kobach and the Trump family puts him at a disadvantage, Colyer said he supports "the president 100 percent" and was honored to have Pence in the region campaigning for Yoder.

The America First Policies event was opened by former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a fixture on cable news who has became a figure of prominence on the political right and figure of scorn on the left in recent years because of his outspoken criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement and other progressive causes.

Clarke dedicated a significant part of his opening remarks to criticizing the “resistance” movement that formed in the wake of Trump’s election.

"This isn't protest, ladies and gentlemen. This is insurgency,” Clarke said.

He said his concerns about the protests played a role in his decision to step down as Milwaukee County sheriff last year and to take a job with America First Policies.

Clarke was reportedly considered for a role in Trump’s administration after speaking at the Republican National Convention in 2016, but his performance as sheriff came under fierce scrutiny amid reports that at least four people, including a newborn baby, died in Milwaukee County Jail during a two-year period.

Clarke has drawn criticism for promoting conspiracy theories on social media, including the unfounded theory that the students who became gun-control activists after surviving the Parkland school shooting earlier this year are being organized by liberal billionaire George Soros.

Hawley said he did not hear Clarke’s speech and was not aware of his past controversies when asked about his decision to participate in an event with Clarke.

The Star's Andy Marso contributed to this report.