Democrats need new ways to reach black voters, but that’s not why McCaskill lost

Sen. Claire McCaskill greeted Dr. Wallace Hartsfeld Sr. during a campaign stop at the St. James Methodist Church in Kansas City on Nov. 5.
Sen. Claire McCaskill greeted Dr. Wallace Hartsfeld Sr. during a campaign stop at the St. James Methodist Church in Kansas City on Nov. 5. The New York Times

Not all African-American officials agree with Missouri Reps. Emanuel Cleaver and William Lacy Clay that Sen. Claire McCaskill could have bested her Republican challenger, Josh Hawley, if only she’d shown up more often, in and for their community and given them more to get excited about.

“It’s easy to throw stones now,” says Kansas City Council member Quinton Lucas. But if it was so obvious to these long-term incumbents that more could have been done, then “why didn’t you guys do more? What was stopping you?”

In fact, McCaskill did very well in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas: In the four largest counties in the state, she came remarkably close to matching Barack Obama’s performance here in 2008 — and of course, that was a presidential year. For African-American voters, the presidential election year.

So let’s not pretend that if only she’d shown up more often, McCaskill could have outperformed Obama here. Nor should we behave as though any Democrat can compete statewide in Missouri without trying hard to turn red rural areas if not blue then at least a little lighter shade of pink.

Still, there are lessons in how unhappy some African-American voters are with McCaskill.

First, the old way of outreach needs some updating: “Your body politic is not sitting in a church,” said Lucas, “or at the Freedom Inc. meeting where the average age is 70 years old. There’s a reason she spent the night before the election in Cleaver’s church.”

Because that’s how it’s always been done, when instead, candidates need to turn voters out to rallies with a “passionate campaign approach. You need to say something different. ‘Hey, I’m a really great moderate’ is not an exciting message.”

Cleaver, not surprisingly, thinks McCaskill should have done a lot more events like that one at his church: “We had 1,300 at St. James, standing room only,” with a well-known musical guest, “and they laid hands on her” and prayed. “They should do that all over.”

But he agrees that the right model going forward is the Beto O’Rourke playbook of creating momentum by convincing voters “I gotta be there.” And Cleaver is annoyed when the national party sends in kids whose only plan seems to be to ask him for advice.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee “will send in some good people whom the Lord loves — and they call me and say, ‘Who should I talk to?’ and I’m resentful. They say, ‘My name is so-and-so, and I’m 13 years old and I’ve been sent here…’ ’’

Instead, Cleaver said, “we need a ground game and a highly sophisticated one, and what they did was depend on volunteers” and a wishy-washy message of “Claire McCaskill is a nice person and drinks milk for breakfast,” so you should vote for her.

Melissa Patterson-Hazley, of Hazley and Associates Consulting says she doesn’t think the message was too moderate, because “African-American women are savvy on a compromise” message. “We understood what was at stake and were willing to accept that” as such.

But whether McCaskill really was more progressive than her centrist message, “I don’t know her well enough” to say. That’s a problem that being around more, year in and year out, would have solved.

Maybe the state was winnable, since voters overwhelmingly approved progressive measures including the ”Clean Missouri’”ethics reforms and the increase in minimum wage that Hawley opposed and McCaskill supported.

But some factors were beyond McCaskill’s control — like that voters didn’t know her opponent well enough to have a lot to hold against him.