Claire McCaskill Is Trying to Rise Above Party Politics. Will It Work?
An unprecedented number of women are chasing political office in the 2018 midterm elections. This month, we're profiling several worthy candidates who are seeking to effect change.
When Claire McCaskill calls me from St. Louis, the Democratic Senator from Missouri is preparing to debate her Republican opponent, Josh Hawley, one last time before the midterm elections on Tuesday, November 6. McCaskill, 65, is embroiled in one of the most hard-fought re-election races this cycle, and she’s feeling the pressure.
“Josh Hawley has spent most of the campaign trashing me,” she says in a slight Southern twang, cutting to the chase. His attack ads have painted McCaskill as a deep-pocketed liberal who’s more in step with Washington Democrats than Missouri voters. But McCaskill says her record speaks for itself: She’s pro-choice, has consistently backed Obamacare, and vehemently opposed Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, but she also hasn’t hesitated to vote with Republicans when she’s felt it served her state. “I don’t pay a lot of attention when people ask, ‘What should the Democratic national message be?’ Don’t know, don’t care. I want to focus on the people in my state and the problems that define their lives.”
It’s this brass-tacks, down-to-business approach, as well as her moderate, Missouri-first platform, that has endeared McCaskill to her constituents across the political spectrum for a decade and won her the votes of a traditionally red state as a blue candidate twice before.
But this year, she’s facing tougher odds than she did in 2012. Back then, her opponent Todd Akin all but disqualified himself from the race with his notorious “legitimate rape” comments. Times have changed: Trump carried Missouri by 19 points in 2016 and has campaigned vigorously for Hawley, the state’s relatively green attorney general, who recently gained a narrow lead in the polls.
The even bigger threat to McCaskill may be a shrinking political center. In that sense, her race feels like a referendum on whether a moderate can succeed in increasingly polarized times. After all, what happens to those left in the middle of the road when the ground splits?
“Whether you are a very liberal progressive that’s disappointed with some of my votes or a far-right lover of Sean Hannity, everybody has to admit that we don’t get anything done unless we figure out a few things we can agree on,” she says. “The middle is where the Senate has always done its work. In order to accomplish anything for the American people, there has to be some compromise.”
Divisive Times: In many ways, McCaskill’s race feels like an existential fight for centrism. We’ve watched her, and other moderate politicians, struggle to appeal to both sides which continue to drift farther apart. This week, in an apparent attempt to charm conservative voters, McCaskill gave a Fox News interview distancing herself from radical members of her party she called “crazy Democrats,” which, in the process, angered her more progressive base.
The Senate Girls’ Club: Senator McCaskill's 2015 memoir, Plenty Ladylike, includes a brief scene that takes place in the Senate floor women's bathroom, the site of her first "meeting" with some of her most prominent colleagues and more than a few strategy sessions over the years. When I interviewed her about it then, she told an enchanting story about how the women of the Senate banded together to achieve a tiny triumph: a bathroom remodel. The anecdote provided a window into the camaraderie among the few females who'd made it to the upper house, regardless of party lines. “I think that still holds true,” McCaskill says now. “It was frayed slightly through some of the emotional rollercoaster that was the Kavanaugh confirmation, but we all still care about each other. There is a certain kinship you feel with one another, and there have been a few exceptions, but it has been the norm that we don’t throw each other under the bus.”
Undercover Scandal: McCaskill, who is married to millionaire housing investor Joseph Shepard, caught flak this summer for using a private plane during stretches of her state RV tour, which critics said betrayed her folksy public persona. It’s one of several jabs her opponents have taken at her authenticity as a candidate. The far-right sting group Project Veritas went so far as to plant a mole in McCaskill’s office who videoed junior staffers saying the Senator is more liberal than she lets on. But, she responds, “There was nothing in the videos that was newsworthy. Missourians are very aware that I have always voted in favor of women’s reproductive freedoms and gun safety, and that I was a big supporter of President Obama.” What is noteworthy, McCaskill adds, is the “fraudulent” manner in which the undercover videos were obtained. “The attorney general of the state” — a.k.a. Hawley — “rather than taking a hard look at what had occurred, was gleeful,” she says.
The Issues: McCaskill is committed to pragmatism over party politics, she says. “I want to bat down the hatches and see if we can’t find people on either side of the room that will say, ‘Let’s see what we can get done on immigration reform or on bringing down costs of college.’ Or how about this one — holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for incredible price hikes without any rhyme or reason?” She’s been called too “left” for the right and too “right” for the left, but “I hope by the end of the day Missourians are reminded that I do get ‘em and that I do feel a great connection to them on issues that really matter, like healthcare and the swamping of our democratic process by dark money, the trade war and the impact it’s having on the financial well-being of a lot of Missourians,” she says.
Beating Cancer: In 2016, McCaskill revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would be taking time away from the Senate to undergo treatment. To her surprise, that announcement served as her induction into what she calls “the coolest club in the world. I had no idea how many wonderful, strong, smart women were breast cancer survivors until I had gone through it.” Now fully in remission, she says, “It is astonishing that I can go nowhere without getting a hug from a stranger, a woman who has walked the same path. It has opened up the doors to a wonderful group of women who I feel connected to, and, frankly, it makes me understand even more why healthcare policy in this country feels personal to people.”
Most Badass Moment: “Well, I’m such a badass, it’s hard to pick!” McCaskill says with a laugh. She’s felt boldest during “moments where it is hardest to swim upstream,” she says. “Women need to feel empowered to do the scariest stuff, to take the risks. When I ran against the sitting governor of my own party, I was definitely swimming upstream. Fighting earmarks when everybody in my caucus said, ‘Be quiet.’ It’s those moments when you’re planting the flag, and you look behind you — and nobody else is with you.”
Just Go Vote: There are no two ways about it — voter turnout is dangerously low, McCaskill says. “Our participation rates in the United States are nothing to brag about. It feels chaotic and almost circus-like right now.” According to the Senator, polarization is one factor keeping people home. “This notion that we somehow should have it all our way is just going to cause more dysfunction and therefore more cynicism. One of two things happen: People quit participating, or people get so frustrated that they might even vote to make a reality TV star President of the United States.”
For more stories like this, pick up the November issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.