Melinda Henneberger

African-American voters are a problem for Claire McCaskill

Many African-American voters complain that Sen. Claire McCaskill is just not very responsive. She doesn’t show up, they say, and isn’t raising the money it will take to get out the vote.
Many African-American voters complain that Sen. Claire McCaskill is just not very responsive. She doesn’t show up, they say, and isn’t raising the money it will take to get out the vote. File photo

At a town hall in downtown St. Louis last weekend, Democratic State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. got into a protracted back and forth with African-American constituents over their shared sense that Sen. Claire McCaskill is so busy courting rural voters that they’ve forgotten what she looks like.

“The entire exchange was so telling of the challenges that McCaskill faces this fall,” said a story in St. Louis’ African-American newspaper, the St. Louis American, “that we transcribed it.” And it’s so telling that I’m going to quote it at length.

A woman in the crowd started the whole thing by saying she’s worried McCaskill could lose her Senate seat to Republican Josh Hawley this year: “She may not be speaking to folks,” the woman said, but if she goes down, then the Democrats “lose an important seat in the Senate. How can we get folks out to vote for that, understanding that it’s touchy?”

It’s so touchy, in fact, that Franks turned the question back on her: “As a black man in a poor black community, how would you express to me the need to vote for Claire McCaskill?”

Good question, she said. Which raises another good question about how much this lack of enthusiasm will hurt turnout for McCaskill among the urban voters she’ll need to win the year’s toughest race.

“I’m going to vote for Claire,’’ Franks continued. “But we have folks who don’t come from this particular community and don’t understand the barriers and challenges. They come in and they say, ‘Listen, we could lose a Senate seat.’ And they’re telling us that we can lose a senator that we never knew existed because this person hasn’t shown up in our community. This person hasn’t spoken to our needs.”

He pushed back against another woman who said at least she was better than her Republican counterpart, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt. “One thing I can tell you about Roy Blunt,’’ Franks said, “is Roy Blunt is the chair of appropriations. He appropriates the federal funding that comes down that funds Youth Build,” a job program for young people from low-income families. “One place Senator Blunt has always fought for and made sure we had funding was Youth Build in St. Louis.”

A woman in the crowd called that crumbs, but he disputed that, too: “We are talking about folks who, chances are, are having trouble voting for Claire. So her votes on the good stuff, those are crumbs. Her rhetoric, those are crumbs….I’m going to vote for Claire, but Claire is going to have to bring her ass to St. Louis. Period.”

According to the transcript, the crowd applauded that remark. There was more, too, none of it laudatory.

“I don’t like a lot of what she’s done, either,’’ said the closest thing she had to a defender. “But ... it would be a tragedy to lose that seat.”

Another woman in the crowd said the tragedy would be “to let her go again just because she’s a Democrat. Because that thinking there would have put a pedophile in the Senate,’’ she said, referring to the Republicans who argued that their nominee in Alabama, Roy Moore, who was accused of molesting teenagers, was at least not a Democrat. “She has got to earn the vote. And being MIA won’t get her mine.”

So, how widespread is this feeling? Very.

She and Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver aren’t close, so some of that non-friendship has trickled down in Kansas City.

But the main complaint in the community here is that she’s just not very responsive. Doesn’t show up, either in person or on important issues, and isn’t raising the money it will take to get out the vote.

In answer to the criticism from Franks and others, a McCaskill campaign spokeswoman sent a statement that had nothing to do with African-American voters: "It doesn't do any good to rant and rave if you can't get anything done,” it said. “Claire is not ashamed of the fact that she works in a bipartisan way — that's the only way to accomplish anything, and Claire is focused on getting things done.” It mentioned her “historically unprecedented level of grassroots support” and said Missourians know that they’ll either elect “someone who is going to be a check on President Trump or someone who is his rubber stamp."

That non-responsive response to the concerns of African-American voters suggests that she may have concluded there’s more to be gained in courting rural moderates than there is to be lost if some African Americans in St. Louis and Kansas City stay home. If she has, I think she’s mistaken, because she’s going to need every last vote.

But in a state that overwhelmingly went for Trump, there’s no question that she has to compromise to win. Or that Democratic voters will, too.

An ally of McCaskill’s in the African-American community in Kansas City said he frequently reminds the many who have concerns about the senator that “Missouri is a red state now. We’re one step away from Mississippi, and she has to run to the right. We’d like to see her more, yes, and we’d like her to be campaigning on Medicaid expansion, but there’s a risk” in being seen as too chummy, and he gets that.

So maybe Franks’ frank criticism will help her with those moderates she’s wooing so hard?

He laughed. “If anybody can exploit that, it’s Claire.”