Melinda Henneberger

Country Claire McCaskill, gettin’ folksy and workin’ hard

A lot of officials stay clear of areas where a win is unlikely, but Claire McCaskill is adept at fielding questions that range from angry to furious.
A lot of officials stay clear of areas where a win is unlikely, but Claire McCaskill is adept at fielding questions that range from angry to furious.

It kind of looks from a distance,” Sen. Claire McCaskill told some of her rural constituents at a town hall on U.S. 54 last week, “that all we’re doin’ is hollerin’ at each other” in Washington. But it kind of looks from up close that Country Claire is layin’ it on awful thick out here in America, tellin’ ’bout how her dad told her the way you can tell who’s country is that they know how to pass on a two-lane road.

Her mom, by the way, always kept a can of cream of mushroom soup on hand to pour over whatever “varmints” her dad had shot that day. Government waste makes McCaskill “so mad I could spit,” while you the voter keeps her grounded, “whether you’re for me or agin’ me.’’ She did think the EPA went too far “when they were thinkin’ about regulatin’ farm dust,” though there was no such push; that whole story was an agrarian myth. And did she mention she was raised in the country and so understands the pushback against government intrusion? “I was raised in the country; I get it.”

Sort of how I get why one of the country’s most endangered Senate Democrats is doing everything but coming in the door singing that Dustin Lynch lyric about being “kinda county line, kinda cold beer, little hat down, little John Deere.” Then again, it’s early. In what may well be 2018’s hottest race, between the former Jackson County prosecutor and her likely opponent, Attorney General Josh Hawley — the farm dust is going to fly.

And if you think it’s easy for anyone with a “D” after her name on the ballot to take on a church atrium packed with Donald Trump voters, many of whom raised their hands when she asked who would never vote for her? Well, you should have been in Camdenton, where one red-faced small business owner was pounding his chest in anger over the insurance premiums he holds her responsible for, and where a World War II veteran pressed her on his two top-of-mind concerns: ISIS and Hillary Clinton’s emails.

In nearly all-white Camden County, on the west side of the Lake of the Ozarks, the roads are littered with dead armadillos and Democrats get scarcer all the time, with 75.4 percent of the electorate casting a vote for Trump in November. A lot of officials stay clear of areas where a win is so unlikely, but McCaskill is adept at fielding questions that range from angry to furious: “If we the people voted for Trump,” one man asked, “why are you trying to block what the people want?” (“There’s a lot getting in the president’s way right now,” McCaskill answered, allowing herself a little smile, “but I’m not sure I can take credit.”) “I want to know if you will right now condemn Black Lives Matter and antifa?” another man wanted to know. (“I condemn anybody who engages in violence.”)

After the event, even the man I would have pegged as most likely to require coronary care during the session said he had to give her credit for showing up and “not backing down on any questions. I like her,” said Mike van Kluyve, “but at 64, she ain’t gonna change what she is, and that’s a lockstep Democrat.”

Fifty-year-old veteran Chris Kramer, who’s retired from Fort Leonard Wood, said at an earlier McCaskill town hall in St. Robert, just down the road from the base, that he does see her as the moderate she says she is and appreciates her “common-sense solutions” like giving those on the border patrols he used to do the technology they need instead of a wall they don’t. Yet it’s common sense, too, that her race will be tough for a bunch of reasons, including that Hawley is no Todd Akin, who talked himself out of contention in 2012 with his references to “legitimate rape.”

It’s also bad news for McCaskill that Trump supporters like 82-year-old Helen Beydler are so far holding firm: She loves everything the president has done and can’t think of anything she wishes he’d handled differently. Now, I wouldn’t say that even of my own children, so I don’t necessarily take that literally. But Beydler, who came to tell McCaskill that she’s not a racist, does makes me wonder when the 2016 campaign will end. “I don’t think you’re a racist,” McCaskill told Beydler, but she wasn’t buying. “Your party has told me that! We were told we were deplorable!”

In a field outside town, a spray-painted sign asks, “Is Hillary above our laws?” For McCaskill to win re-election, she has to hope that 2016 is over by 2018.