Surrounded by supporters in a packed union hall this month, Sen. Claire McCaskill came ready to kick off the final weeks of the 2018 campaign by attacking her Republican rival on health care, the minimum wage and organized labor.
But one target was noticeably missing: President Donald Trump.
While Democrats around the country are wearing opposition to the president as a badge of honor, McCaskill regularly plays up the areas where she says she and Trump see eye-to-eye. And she never misses the chance to tout the legislation she sponsored or co-sponsored that the president has signed into law over the last two years.
“If you find common ground, and you’re willing to work with anybody,” she told the Columbia crowd, “it’s amazing what you can get done.”
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McCaskill the moderate is the well-worn campaign mantra for the two-term senator. But as she works to fend off the most formidable challenger in her career, Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, her centrist bona fides are being called into question.
She can certainly point to a laundry list of bipartisan accomplishments, and she has occasionally bucked her party and voted with Republicans on contentious issues.
But the GOP can point right back at some of the most high-profile legislative fights of the last two years where McCaskill has been a reliable Democrat — from tax cuts to the repeal of Obamacare and, most notably, the president’s nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court.
“She’s a ‘moderate’ when her vote doesn’t matter,” said John Hancock, a former chairman of the Missouri GOP. “In all other situations, she is a doctrinaire liberal.”
So just how much of a moderate is McCaskill?
She’s broken with her party on some high-profile issues of late, such as the calls for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and the “Medicare for all” rallying cry of progressives. She also split with her fellow Democrats earlier this year to oppose a government shutdown.
A bill she co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was recently signed by the president banning “gag clauses” that conceal lower prescription drug prices from patients at the pharmacy. Another bill she co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa protecting whistleblowers across the federal bureaucracy was signed by Trump earlier this year.
The website FiveThirtyEight says she votes with President Trump 45 percent of the time, a figure higher than all but four other red-state Democrats — Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
ProPublica has found McCaskill voted against her party 16.9 percent of the time, the 10th most frequent rate out of 100 senators.
A study by Govtrack.us assigned every senator a political ideology score based on legislation introduced from 2013 to 2018. McCaskill was one of eight who were ranked squarely in the middle, making her among the least partisan senators, along with five other Democrats and two Republicans.
To bolster her reputation as a moderate, McCaskill even rolled out a TV ad earlier this month focused on a quote from Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.
“If you want to pick somebody to work in a bipartisan manner and get something done … you ask Claire McCaskill because she does get the job done,” Roberts said at an August 2017 event in Kansas City.
Peverill Squire, professsor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said objective measures suggest McCaskill is “one of the most moderate Democratic members of the Senate.”
“But both parties make it hard for moderates because they both force votes designed to embarrass the other side,” he said. “Thus, it is hard to look moderate in the Senate these days.“
McCaskill has examples she can point to that demonstrate her willingness to work with members on the other side of the aisle, Squire said, but “those examples get swamped by the number of partisan votes she is forced to make.”
Not so fast
Roberts didn’t take kindly to being quoted in a McCaskill ad in the middle of one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country — and one that could determine which party wins the majority.
He demanded she pull the ad off the air.
“Claire has always been fairly partisan, to say the least,” Roberts told The Star. “Working with her on specific projects involving Kansas and Missouri, that’s a different matter. But on the big bills and the direction we’d like to go, she’s been following the party line.”
James Harris, a veteran GOP consultant, said on the issues that “matter most to Missouri voters — lowering taxes, securing our borders and appointing conservative judges — Claire McCaskill has ignored the will of Missourians.”
Hawley’s campaign is betting on the selection of federal judges as the issue that could carry the day.
The vote on conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was taken before McCaskill was in office, but she stated publicly that she would have opposed his nomination.
After voting in favor of all of Democratic President Barack Obama’s judicial picks, including two Supreme Court justices, McCaskill has voted against nearly half of President Trump’s circuit court nominees. And while three Democratic senators joined with Republicans to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last year, McCaskill was not one of them.
But it was her opposition to Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court that has had the biggest impact on the campaign.
In the months leading up to a vote on his nomination, McCaskill faced pressure from her party’s base to oppose Kavanaugh, as he was seen as the likely swing vote to overturn the landmark court decision that legalized abortion.
Those concerns amplified when Kavanaugh was accused of sexually assaulting a woman when he was in high school.
McCaskill ultimately voted against Kavanaugh, but her public rationale had nothing to do with abortion or the sexual assault allegations. Instead, she said she opposed his nomination because of his judicial record regarding dark money.
“Claire McCaskill can try to hide her record, but voters know the truth: She’s nothing but a party-line liberal,” said Chris Nuelle, spokesperson for the Missouri Republican Party.
Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro Choice Missouri, has never been shy about voicing her criticism of McCaskill. She said she would have had a hard time supporting her if she had voted to confirm Kavanaugh.
“Claire McCaskill is a Democrat,” Dreith said. “But she’s certainly not the progressive or liberal Josh Hawley has tried to paint her as.”