Friend and foe alike reflect on McCaskill’s political legacy, not always predictably

Ask Chris Kelly about Claire McCaskill, and he immediately jumps all the way back to his time serving with her on the Missouri House budget committee in the 1980s.

The late Sen. Richard Webster, a powerhouse in his day, was fuming that McCaskill and others were scrutinizing the funding of the attorney general’s office. Webster’s son had just been elected attorney general, and criticism from a young Democrat — especially a woman — didn’t sit well with him.

“He got so mad at Claire he called her a whore on the floor of the Senate,” Kelly said.

“That shows you what she and other women had to put up with in those days. But it also shows you how effective she was. She beat someone who was maybe the most powerful man in the legislature. Beat him and made him mad.”

He added, “She was great, right from the beginning.”

After 36 years in office — as a legislator, county prosecutor, state auditor and two-term U.S. senator — Claire McCaskill may have stepped off the electoral stage for the final time. She lost her race for re-election to Missouri’s Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley on Tuesday, succumbing to the changing political landscape of a state she has barnstormed for decades.

In many ways, the defeat was expected. Missouri is no longer the reliably purple political bellwether that first sent McCaskill to Washington, D.C., in 2006 and re-elected her again in 2012.

“You knew the day was coming when eventually they’d catch up to her,” said Roy Temple, a former chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.

But to many who grew close to McCaskill over her long career in politics, the loss came as a painful surprise — if for no other reason than they had just grown to assume the tenacious woman from Rolla would always find a way to win in the end.

McCaskill is the “single best retail politician of this generation,” said Jack Cardetti, a longtime Democratic strategist in Missouri.

“I don’t know another politician that loves to do town halls and seeks out town halls in places that they’re not very popular and yet that is Claire McCaskill’s definition of a good time,” Cardetti said. “She loves the back and forth. She loves interacting with people.”

McCaskill took pride in facing her critics head on. She campaigned hard in rural counties where she didn’t expect to win, but hoped that 30-40 percent of the vote there would help her eke out a win statewide. In the end, she couldn’t pull it off.

McCaskill’s dogged courting of votes in Trump country was very much in character for someone who Temple called a “fearless truth teller.”

He pointed to her vote in 2010 to pass the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, as an example of her political courage.

“Being willing to take a tough vote on the Affordable Care Act and being willing to go visit towns in rural Missouri where people took her head off about it — that takes guts and grit,” he said. “She did what she thought was right for Missouri and had the confidence that she could make the case for it.”

That fearlessness helped drive McCaskill’s rise from legislator to prosecutor to state auditor, and finally to U.S. senator.

In the late 1990s, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan told Temple he should talk to McCaskill about running for state auditor. Temple told the governor he’d do it, “but there will come a day when you will wonder if that was a good idea.”

Carnahan laughed knowingly, Temple said.

“He knew it was true,” Temple said. “He knew that if there was something embarrassing a state auditor would find, she would find it. She wouldn’t be afraid of the consequences.

“In some ways that kind of encapsulates her. He knew that about her, he wasn’t afraid of her, but it was clear to him she wasn’t someone who would go easy on anybody,” even the governor in her own party.

To Carnahan’s credit, he said, the governor wanted Temple to ask McCaskill to run anyway. “I think she would be good at the job,” he told Temple. So Temple asked her, and she ran, and won.

During her years in the Senate, McCaskill’s independent streak and her determination to control her own message — she is one of a handful of senators whose tweets aren’t filtered or drafted by her staff — could give her team heartburn. It also was true to McCaskill’s personality, say those who worked with her.

“It was that kind of unscripted aspect of her personality, which I think is becoming less common in politics,” said Drew Pusateri, who began working for McCaskill in early 2012 as her press secretary. “It was that authenticity that stuck out to Missourians, whether they loved her or didn’t. What you saw was what you got, one day to the next.”

McCaskill would drive her staff crazy in the best way possible, constantly questioning their assumptions and pushing them to take more risks, said John LaBombard, McCaskill’s deputy campaign manager and former communications director.

“Some of the times that were most illuminating to me about who she is, was when I would draft something in her voice and take it to her, and watch her edit it. Sometimes a little, sometimes at lot,” LaBombard said. He distinctly remembers walking into her office with a draft statement on the day of yet another school shooting.

“It was a safe statement, with lots of lofty canned lines,” he said. “She crossed out most of it, and I remember her writing the words, ‘The slaughter of innocent children in our schools is a stain on our nation...’ I still have that piece of paper.”

Corey Dillon worked for McCaskill in one capacity or another for 16 years. She was her regional director in the Kansas City Senate office from 2007-2017.

Dillon recalled two sisters in the Kansas City area started tweeting “hateful rhetoric” at McCaskill during the health care debate.

“Claire tried to respond to them for awhile and then finally got fed up and suggested she meet with them face to face to talk about it,” Dillon said. McCaskill called Dillon and said she had agreed to meet the sisters for breakfast — the senator would pay — and had told them they could invite 10 other people.

“All of her staff were beside ourselves that Claire would suggest this,” Dillon said. “We did have the meeting at a hotel meeting room downtown and they brought a whole group. Claire visited with them around the table for an hour, took pictures with their kids, paid for breakfast and continued to get hateful tweets from them for years!”

McCaskill’s political opponents have long painted her as a liberal partisan. McCaskill vehemently rejects that portrayal, pointing to bipartisan work during her senate career investigating waste and fraud in military contracting and combating sexual violence in the military and on college campuses.

“She put in a tremendous amount of work into an investigation into contracting in the defense department,” said Richard Martin, McCaskill’s former campaign manager. “She wasn’t rewarded at home for it, but the country as a whole is better for what she did.”

More recently, she helped lead investigations of the opioid industry’s role in Missouri’s drug abuse and overdose problem and championed a bill providing relief to veterans intentionally exposed to mustard gas during World War II.

Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins got to know McCaskill when the two were both serving on the Senate’s Homeland Security committee, where they worked together to strengthen the authority of the inspectors general and increase competition and transparency in government contracting.

In 2013, when a government shutdown occurred, McCaskill and Collins became part of a bipartisan coalition to end it.

The women worked even more closely when McCaskill became the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Aging Committee while Collins was chair.

“That was a great experience working with her,” Collins told The Star Wednesday afternoon. “We tackled the issue of the rising cost of prescription drugs and also financial fraud aimed at our seniors. And working together we were able to get bills through and signed into law that tackled both of those issues.”

Collins said she’s going to miss working with McCaskill. “She’s very determined and smart.”

McCaskill brought a special talent for investigations to the Senate that will be tough — if not impossible — to replace, she said.

“Perhaps because of her background as the state auditor and an attorney and a prosecutor, she really had a gift for investigations,” Collins said. “And she was always determined to get to the truth and get to the bottom of an issue.”

Collins fondly recalled McCaskill’s cross examination of drug company executives who had bought pharmaceuticals for which the patent had expired, and then they hyped the price by 1,000 percent overnight.

McCaskill was truly outraged, Collins said. She was also well-prepared.

“If there were a GAO report you could count on Claire to have read every page of it and that’s not standard in the Senate,” Collins said. “She does not rely just on her staff. She does her own investigative work and she’s always extremely well prepared. And I’ll miss that knack that she had for investigation and getting to the bottom of things.”

Collins isn’t McCaskill’s only GOP friend who saw her defeat Tuesday as bittersweet.

Missouri’s Republican Sen. Roy Blunt met McCaskill decades ago, when he was serving as secretary of state and McCaskill was in the legislature. But their families go even further back. Blunt’s dad ran against McCaskill’s mother for the same legislative seat, and won.

In 2004, Blunt’s son, Matt, would beat McCaskill for governor.

“I’ve known her for a long time. I like her,” he said. “She is very talented. And you know, I’d say our relationship has been almost totally without pretense. She and I have always had an appreciation for what the other person was likely to do and what the other person could do. We visit a lot.”

On national issues — such as the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court or the GOP tax bill — the two Missouri senators sharply disagreed, Blunt said, “but I think generally without needlessly going out of our way to poke at the other person.”

On legislation that affected their state, the pair often were on the same page. They worked together on local bills that ranged from the cleanup of the Westlake landfill near St. Louis to transportation infrastructure in Kansas City.

Blunt said he texted McCaskill several times after her loss on Tuesday. He told her he looks forward to finding time to sit down when they get back to Washington and talking about the campaign and what McCaskill and her husband intend to do next. (Joe Shepard was a supporter of Blunt’s before he met and married McCaskill.)

Republicans attacked McCaskill mercilessly on the campaign trail over her husband’s business dealings. But on Wednesday, Blunt said he counts McCaskill and her husband as friends and looks forward to that friendship continuing.

“Of my colleagues in the Senate,” Blunt said, “the people I would expect I would still be looking forward to spending time with 10 years from now, Claire would be on that reasonably short list.”

McCaskill will return to the Senate for the rest of this year’s lame-duck session. After that, her plans are unclear.

No one expects McCaskill to fade quietly from public life, however.

“She’s too restless to sit back and do nothing and she’ll make a contribution to the public discourse in some way,” Temple said.

McCaskill has bounced back from defeat before.

After she lost the Missouri governor race to Matt Blunt in 2004, she invited a small group of staff to her lake house in the Ozarks to spend the night and commiserate. “By the end of the night she was playing Motown music loud and dancing on the coffee table,” Dillon said.

“Service to Missourians was what made Claire want to run for governor, but losing that race could have been the best thing to happen to her,” said Adrianne Marsh, a longtime advisor to McCaskill. “It wasn’t until then that she was open to the senate, where her prosecutor and auditor experience merged ... Public service has always been her motivation but this job was truly her calling.”

On Tuesday, McCaskill’s first instinct was to comfort others devastated by her loss, LaBombard said. Before delivering her concession speech in St. Louis, she met with her emotional family and staff, who gave her a seemingly endless standing ovation, he said.

McCaskill told them not to relent in their pursuit of what they believe and promised that she wouldn’t either.

“On her way to the ballroom,” LaBombard said, “she declined to look at the staff-prepared remarks, telling me, ‘I’m just gonna say what I want to say.’”

And McCaskill didn’t seem ready to completely shut the door on public service during her concession speech Tuesday night.

She noted that she was only 28 when she was first elected to office, and that “I’ve been blessed to get up every day and work in a challenging and interesting job trying to make things better in people’s lives.”

As for her future?

“This is good night,” McCaskill told her supporters, “but not goodbye.”