There are lots of ways to describe the legacy of Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, whose 30-some-year political career appears to be winding down after her loss Tuesday to Republican Josh Hawley.
She was a trailblazer for women. She took more than her share of tough votes on Supreme Court nominees and the Affordable Care Act. She spoke with more candor than most in an era when frankness and authenticity in politics have all but evaporated.
It should be lost on no one that she plied her craft in Missouri, a state that was intensely competitive throughout her career and where no statewide official, Democrat or Republican, could easily rest. She pulled it off in in spite of what she described as a mouth that often got her into trouble.
In an era of out-of-control partisanship, she sought to walk a middle path much to the chagrin of conservatives and liberals who often demanded unwavering loyalty to the party line.
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She’ll be remembered for her endless series of town halls all over the state where McCaskill would meet with anybody who wandered into the room — Republicans, Democrats, conspiracy mongers, flamethrowers. We don’t see our politicians doing that any more — not if their consultants have anything to say about it.
Then again, not many politicians could handle hostile crowds the way she could. Yes, McCaskill had an ulterior reason for venturing into red Missouri where she hoped to cut into the Republican vote. It worked, for a while.
She lost the 2004 race for governor after unexpectedly getting trounced outstate. In 2006, she focused intensely on rural Missouri, kicking off her comeback campaign for the U.S. Senate in her hometown of Houston, Missouri, where she talked about how her father taught her to bait a hook.
She won in 2006. She was defeated this year following a Herculean effort — a sign that rural Missouri is a deeper red than ever.
That 2004 race would have made her Missouri’s first woman governor. As it was, she became the first woman to serve as Jackson County prosecutor, then the first Missouri woman elected to the U.S. Senate (Jean Carnahan was appointed).
Determined, she was. Ambitious? Blatantly so, and it rubbed some people wrong, including members of her own party after she took on Bob Holden, the sitting Democratic governor, in the 2004 primary and beat him.
She was also calculating, sometimes too much so. Her rationale for opposing Brett Kavanaugh this year was a little much (her reasoning centered on dark money in politics and had nothing to do with sexual assault allegations). She received national attention for boosting Republican Todd Akin in the 2012 GOP Senate primary because she believed she could beat him in the fall. The move was at once brilliant and manipulative.
It also was the correct call. Likewise, her response was spot-on when, as Jackson County prosecutor, her first husband was caught smoking marijuana on a riverboat. “It’s going to take about a month before I can resist the urge to kill him,” she said at the time.
She remained endlessly compelling, consistently insightful and never dull. She was a master at both policy and politics when so many of her contemporaries were good at only one.
Missouri may never see the likes of her again.