In a year where young, progressive candidates are grabbing headlines in New York and Texas, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is marching methodically toward the center as she runs for a third term in the U.S. Senate.
Some factions of the Democratic Party have called for abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and candidates have championed “Medicare for all.” But McCaskill is touting an endorsement by the labor union representing border patrol agents and sticks to popular health care topics, like maintaining protection for those with pre-existing conditions and negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
At a speaking event this week at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where she urged young people to vote, McCaskill recognized that desire for progressive leadership, but held that middle of the road is often the best path. She offered her support for rolling back some Obama-era coal regulations as an example.
“I know for some of you that think I’m not far enough left, you don’t like to hear this, but the middle ground is where we get things done,” McCaskill said. “It’s in the middle that we accomplish things. It’s not on opposite sides of the room when we’re yelling at each other.”
To some, her centrist approach seems like a good strategy in a state won by Donald Trump and occupied by two major metro areas and swaths of rural voters, but she may run the risk of alienating her more progressive supporters.
“It’s the nature of Missouri where Claire McCaskill has to walk that very, very thin line between alienating her base and then grabbing more individuals who are moderate to turn out to vote for her. It can be a very complicated and difficult job,” said Robynn Kuhlmann, a political scientist at the University of Central Missouri.
McCaskill, however, voted with other members of her party against the nomination of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court and against Trump’s tax reform plan passed late last year. Her Republican opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, disputed the notion she’s a centrist, instead calling her a “partisan liberal Democrat.”
“She hasn’t listened to the voters,” Hawley said. “She hasn’t listened to a thing they’ve told her for years now.”
Trump won Missouri by 19 percentage points in 2016, and while he looms large over the midterms, McCaskill insists she is not running against him. Hawley has the support of Trump, who weighed in on the race on Twitter in June.
Asked after her UMKC event about an anonymous opinion column in The New York Times that was critical of Trump, McCaskill said the author should come forward and resign. That position is supported by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Vice President Mike Pence and — according to NPR — House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
“I am disgusted with all the anonymous money that’s being spent in this campaign on both sides. I don’t like it,” McCaskill said. “So I’m not about to put much credence in something that someone’s not willing to sign their name to.”
McCaskill and Hawley are tied 47-47 in a two-way race, according to a poll from NBC News and Marist. When the poll included Libertarian Japheth Campbell and Jo Crain, the Green Party candidate, McCaskill had a 44-40 edge over Hawley.
Alex Fulton, an 18-year-old communications major from Texas who attended McCaskill’s UMKC event sponsored by the university’s College Democrats club, said he appreciated the senator’s approach. Fulton said he considers himself a moderate.
“I feel like people underestimate how many moderate voters there are, and like she mentioned, those people that don’t vote — they’re more in the middle,” Fulton said. “They’re not far left or far right.”
Fulton said he registered to vote in Missouri a few weeks ago and plans to vote for McCaskill.
The question of the day at UMKC was Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Despite mounting pressure from both Republicans who want to see him approved and liberal groups gravely concerned about his stance on issues such as abortion rights, McCaskill has not made a decision.
McCaskill said she’s still reviewing “committee confidential” documents about Kavanaugh’s prior service and has some concerns about his nomination, but won’t make her decision until she finishes.
For that, she’s already drawn the ire of some progressive groups. Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, said the Kavanaugh nomination is her “line in the sand.”
“I honestly don’t know what I will do if she votes to confirm this nominee,” Dreith said, noting she never misses an election and won’t vote for Hawley.
But McCaskill said she doesn’t see an easy win.
“I don’t see either side of this being a ‘political winner,’ “ McCaskill said. “And frankly, I’m kind of used to that. When you represent Missouri and it’s a tough issue, it doesn’t matter how you vote — half of the people are mad.”
Hawley and his campaign have repeatedly called on McCaskill to support Kavanaugh’s nomination.
The middle-of-the-road messaging McCaskill is using won’t “light the fire of progressives,” said Dave Robertson, chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“But President Trump is the key figure in this election,” Robertson said. “He’s the top issue, and for those young progressives, opposing President Trump through the vote is a big issue.”
Like Hawley, Ray Bozarth, executive director of the Missouri GOP, disputed the notion McCaskill is a centrist.
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, and the greatest trick Claire McCaskill ever tried to pull was convincing Missouri she’s not a progressive liberal,” Bozarth said.
He called her claims of bipartisanship “window dressing.”
“I’ll say this about Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — they don’t pretend to be something they’re not,” Bozarth said.
Missouri Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said she doesn’t hear complaints that McCaskill isn’t liberal enough. She said McCaskill’s stances on health care and increasing the availability of Pell grants for college students are liberal stances.
“I think people are excited, and I think people are going to come out to vote, especially the young people because they don’t want someone like Josh Hawley in the Senate carrying the water for Donald Trump,” Nasheed said.