RE­FLEC­TIONS ON PO­LIT­I­CAL LEGACY

The Kansas City Star - - Front Page - BY JA­SON HAN­COCK AND LIND­SAY WISE jhan­cock@kc­star.com lwise@mc­clatchydc.com

To many who knew U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill over her long ca­reer in pol­i­tics, her midterm loss came as a painful sur­prise.

Ask Chris Kelly about Claire McCaskill, and he im­me­di­ately jumps all the way back to his time serv­ing with her on the Mis­souri House bud­get com­mit­tee in the 1980s.

The late Sen. Richard Web­ster, a pow­er­house in his day, was fum­ing that McCaskill and oth­ers were scru­ti­niz­ing the fund­ing of the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice. Web­ster’s son had just been elected at­tor­ney gen­eral, and crit­i­cism from a young Demo­crat — es­pe­cially a woman — didn’t sit well with him.

“He got so mad at Claire he called her a whore on the floor of the Se­nate,” Kelly said.

“That shows you what she and other women had to put up with in those days. But it also shows you how ef­fec­tive she was. She beat some­one who was maybe the most pow­er­ful man in the leg­is­la­ture. Beat him and made him mad.”

He added, “She was great, right from the be­gin­ning.”

Af­ter 36 years in of­fice — as a leg­is­la­tor, county prose­cu­tor, state au­di­tor and two-term U.S. sen­a­tor — Claire McCaskill may have stepped off the elec­toral stage for the fi­nal time. She lost her race for re-elec­tion to Mis­souri’s Re­pub­li­can At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Haw­ley on Tues­day, suc­cumb­ing to the chang­ing po­lit­i­cal land­scape of a state she has barn­stormed for decades.

In many ways, the de­feat was ex­pected. Mis­souri is no longer the re­li­ably pur­ple po­lit­i­cal bell­wether that first sent McCaskill to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in 2006 and re-elected her again in 2012.

“You knew the day was com­ing when even­tu­ally they’d catch up to her,” said Roy Tem­ple, a for­mer chair­man of the Mis­souri Demo­cratic Party.

But to many who grew close to McCaskill over her long ca­reer in pol­i­tics, the loss came as a painful sur­prise — if for no other rea­son than they had just grown to as­sume the tena­cious woman from Rolla would al­ways find a way to win in the end.

McCaskill is the “sin­gle best re­tail politi­cian of this gen­er­a­tion,” said Jack Cardetti, a long­time Demo­cratic strate­gist in Mis­souri.

“I don’t know an­other politi­cian that loves to do town halls and seeks out town halls in places that they’re not very pop­u­lar and yet that is Claire McCaskill’s def­i­ni­tion of a good time,” Cardetti said. “She loves the back and forth. She loves in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple.”

McCaskill took pride in fac­ing her crit­ics head on. She cam­paigned hard in ru­ral coun­ties where she didn’t ex­pect to win, but hoped that 30-40 per­cent of the vote there would help her eke out a win statewide. In the end, she couldn’t pull it off.

McCaskill’s dogged court­ing of votes in Trump coun­try was very much in char­ac­ter for some­one who Tem­ple called a “fear­less truth teller.”

He pointed to her vote in 2010 to pass the Af­ford­able Care Act, also known as Oba­macare, as an ex­am­ple of her po­lit­i­cal courage.

“Be­ing will­ing to take a tough vote on the Af­ford­able Care Act and be­ing will­ing to go visit towns in ru­ral Mis­souri where peo­ple took her head off about it — that takes guts and grit,” he said. “She did what she thought was right for Mis­souri and had the con­fi­dence that she could make the case for it.”

That fear­less­ness helped drive McCaskill’s rise from leg­is­la­tor to prose­cu­tor to state au­di­tor, and fi­nally to U.S. sen­a­tor.

In the late 1990s, thenGov. Mel Car­na­han told Tem­ple he should talk to McCaskill about run­ning for state au­di­tor. Tem­ple told the gov­er­nor he’d do it, “but there will come a day when you will won­der if that was a good idea.”

Car­na­han laughed know­ingly, Tem­ple said.

“He knew it was true,” Tem­ple said. “He knew that if there was some­thing em­bar­rass­ing a state au­di­tor would find, she would find it. She wouldn’t be afraid of the con­se­quences.

“In some ways that kind of en­cap­su­lates her. He knew that about her, he wasn’t afraid of her, but it was clear to him she wasn’t some­one who would go easy on any­body,” even the gov­er­nor in her own party.

To Car­na­han’s credit, he said, the gov­er­nor wanted Tem­ple to ask McCaskill to run any­way. “I think she would be good at the job,” he told Tem­ple. So Tem­ple asked her, and she ran, and won.

Dur­ing her years in the Se­nate, McCaskill’s in­de­pen­dent streak and her de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­trol her own mes­sage — she is one of a hand­ful of se­na­tors whose tweets aren’t fil­tered or drafted by her staff — could give her team heart­burn. It also was true to McCaskill’s per­son­al­ity, say those who worked with her.

“It was that kind of un­scripted as­pect of her per­son­al­ity, which I think is be­com­ing less com­mon in pol­i­tics,” said Drew Pusateri, who be­gan work­ing for McCaskill in early 2012 as her press sec­re­tary. “It was that au­then­tic­ity that stuck out to Mis­souri­ans, whether they loved her or didn’t. What you saw was what you got, one day to the next.”

McCaskill would drive her staff crazy in the best way pos­si­ble, con­stantly ques­tion­ing their as­sump­tions and push­ing them to take more risks, said John LaBom­bard, McCaskill’s deputy cam­paign man­ager and for­mer com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor.

“Some of the times that were most il­lu­mi­nat­ing to me about who she is, was when I would draft some­thing in her voice and take it to her, and watch her edit it. Some­times a lit­tle, some­times at lot,” LaBom­bard said. He dis­tinctly re­mem­bers walk­ing into her of­fice with a draft state­ment on the day of yet an­other school shooting.

“It was a safe state­ment, with lots of lofty canned lines,” he said. “She crossed out most of it, and I re­mem­ber her writ­ing the words, ‘The slaugh­ter of in­no­cent chil­dren in our schools is a stain on our na­tion...’ I still have that piece of pa­per.”

Corey Dil­lon worked for McCaskill in one ca­pac­ity or an­other for 16 years. She was her re­gional di­rec­tor in the Kansas City Se­nate of­fice from 2007-2017.

Dil­lon re­called two sis­ters in the Kansas City area started tweet­ing “hate­ful rhetoric” at McCaskill dur­ing the health care de­bate.

“Claire tried to re­spond to them for awhile and then fi­nally got fed up and sug­gested she meet with them face to face to talk about it,” Dil­lon said. McCaskill called Dil­lon and said she had agreed to meet the sis­ters for break­fast — the sen­a­tor would pay — and had told them they could in­vite 10 other peo­ple.

“All of her staff were be­side our­selves that Claire would sug­gest this,” Dil­lon said. “We did have the meet­ing at a ho­tel meet­ing room down­town and they brought a whole group. Claire vis­ited with them around the ta­ble for an hour, took pic­tures with their kids, paid for break­fast and con­tin­ued to get hate­ful tweets from them for years!”

McCaskill’s po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents have long painted her as a lib­eral par­ti­san. McCaskill ve­he­mently re­jects that por­trayal, point­ing to bi­par­ti­san work dur­ing her se­nate ca­reer in­ves­ti­gat­ing waste and fraud in mil­i­tary con­tract­ing and com­bat­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence in the mil­i­tary and on col­lege cam­puses.

“She put in a tremen­dous amount of work into an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into con­tract­ing in the de­fense de­part­ment,” said Richard Mar­tin, McCaskill’s for­mer cam­paign man­ager. “She wasn’t re­warded at home for it, but the coun­try as a whole is bet­ter for what she did.”

More re­cently, she helped lead in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the opi­oid in­dus­try’s role in Mis­souri’s drug abuse and over­dose prob­lem and cham­pi­oned a bill pro­vid­ing re­lief to vet­er­ans in­ten­tion­ally ex­posed to mus­tard gas dur­ing World War II.

Maine’s Re­pub­li­can Sen. Su­san Collins got to know McCaskill when the two were both serv­ing on the Se­nate’s Home­land Se­cu­rity com­mit­tee, where they worked to­gether to strengthen the au­thor­ity of the in­spec­tors gen­eral and in­crease com­pe­ti­tion and trans­parency in gov­ern­ment con­tract­ing.

In 2013, when a gov­ern­ment shut­down oc­curred, McCaskill and Collins be­came part of a bi­par­ti­san coali­tion to end it.

The women worked even more closely when McCaskill be­came the top-rank­ing Demo­crat on the Se­nate Ag­ing Com­mit­tee while Collins was chair.

“That was a great ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with her,” Collins told The Star Wednes­day af­ter­noon. “We tack­led the is­sue of the ris­ing cost of pre­scrip­tion drugs and also fi­nan­cial fraud aimed at our se­niors. And work­ing to­gether we were able to get bills through and signed into law that tack­led both of those is­sues.”

Collins said she’s go­ing to miss work­ing with McCaskill. “She’s very de­ter­mined and smart.”

McCaskill brought a spe­cial tal­ent for in­ves­ti­ga­tions to the Se­nate that will be tough — if not im­pos­si­ble — to re­place, she said.

“Per­haps be­cause of her back­ground as the state au­di­tor and an at­tor­ney and a prose­cu­tor, she re­ally had a gift for in­ves­ti­ga­tions,” Collins said. “And she was al­ways de­ter­mined to get to the truth and get to the bot­tom of an is­sue.”

Collins fondly re­called McCaskill’s cross ex­am­i­na­tion of drug com­pany ex­ec­u­tives who had bought phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals for which the patent had ex­pired, and then they hyped the price by 1,000 per­cent overnight.

McCaskill was truly out­raged, Collins said. She was also well-pre­pared.

“If there were a GAO re­port you could count on Claire to have read ev­ery page of it and that’s not stan­dard in the Se­nate,” Collins said. “She does not rely just on her staff. She does her own in­ves­tiga­tive work and she’s al­ways extremely well pre­pared. And I’ll miss that knack that she had for in­ves­ti­ga­tion and get­ting to the bot­tom of things.”

Collins isn’t McCaskill’s only GOP friend who saw her de­feat Tues­day as bit­ter­sweet.

Mis­souri’s Re­pub­li­can Sen. Roy Blunt met McCaskill decades ago, when he was serv­ing as sec­re­tary of state and McCaskill was in the leg­is­la­ture. But their fam­i­lies go even fur­ther back. Blunt’s dad ran against McCaskill’s mother for the same leg­isla­tive seat, and won.

In 2004, Blunt’s son, Matt, would beat McCaskill for gov­er­nor.

“I’ve known her for a long time. I like her,” he said. “She is very tal­ented. And you know, I’d say our re­la­tion­ship has been al­most to­tally with­out pre­tense. She and I have al­ways had an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what the other per­son was likely to do and what the other per­son could do. We visit a lot.”

On na­tional is­sues — such as the nom­i­na­tion of Brett Ka­vanaugh for the Supreme Court or the GOP tax bill — the two Mis­souri se­na­tors sharply dis­agreed, Blunt said, “but I think gen­er­ally with­out need­lessly go­ing out of our way to poke at the other per­son.”

On leg­is­la­tion that af­fected their state, the pair of­ten were on the same page. They worked to­gether on lo­cal bills that ranged from the cleanup of the West­lake land­fill near St. Louis to trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture in Kansas City.

Blunt said he texted McCaskill sev­eral times af­ter her loss on Tues­day. He told her he looks for­ward to find­ing time to sit down when they get back to Wash­ing­ton and talk­ing about the cam­paign and what McCaskill and her hus­band in­tend to do next. (Joe Shep­ard was a sup­porter of Blunt’s be­fore he met and mar­ried McCaskill.)

Re­pub­li­cans at­tacked McCaskill mer­ci­lessly on the cam­paign trail over her hus­band’s busi­ness deal­ings. But on Wednes­day, Blunt said he counts McCaskill and her hus­band as friends and looks for­ward to that friend­ship con­tin­u­ing.

“Of my col­leagues in the Se­nate,” Blunt said, “the peo­ple I would ex­pect I would still be look­ing for­ward to spend­ing time with 10 years from now, Claire would be on that rea­son­ably short list.”

McCaskill will re­turn to the Se­nate for the rest of this year’s lame-duck ses­sion. Af­ter that, her plans are un­clear.

No one ex­pects McCaskill to fade qui­etly from pub­lic life, how­ever.

“She’s too rest­less to sit back and do noth­ing and she’ll make a con­tri­bu­tion to the pub­lic dis­course in some way,” Tem­ple said.

McCaskill has bounced back from de­feat be­fore.

Af­ter she lost the Mis­souri gov­er­nor race to Matt Blunt in 2004, she in­vited a small group of staff to her lake house in the Ozarks to spend the night and com­mis­er­ate. “By the end of the night she was play­ing Mo­town mu­sic loud and danc­ing on the cof­fee ta­ble,” Dil­lon said.

“Ser­vice to Mis­souri­ans was what made Claire want to run for gov­er­nor, but los­ing that race could have been the best thing to hap­pen to her,” said Adri­anne Marsh, a long­time ad­vi­sor to McCaskill. “It wasn’t un­til then that she was open to the se­nate, where her prose­cu­tor and au­di­tor ex­pe­ri­ence merged ... Pub­lic ser­vice has al­ways been her mo­ti­va­tion but this job was truly her call­ing.”

On Tues­day, McCaskill’s first in­stinct was to com­fort oth­ers dev­as­tated by her loss, LaBom­bard said. Be­fore de­liv­er­ing her con­ces­sion speech in St. Louis, she met with her emo­tional fam­ily and staff, who gave her a seem­ingly end­less stand­ing ova­tion, he said.

McCaskill told them not to re­lent in their pur­suit of what they be­lieve and promised that she wouldn’t ei­ther.

“On her way to the ball­room,” LaBom­bard said, “she de­clined to look at the staff-pre­pared re­marks, telling me, ‘I’m just gonna say what I want to say.’”

And McCaskill didn’t seem ready to com­pletely shut the door on pub­lic ser­vice dur­ing her con­ces­sion speech Tues­day night.

She noted that she was only 28 when she was first elected to of­fice, and that “I’ve been blessed to get up ev­ery day and work in a chal­leng­ing and in­ter­est­ing job try­ing to make things bet­ter in peo­ple’s lives.” As for her fu­ture? “This is good night,” McCaskill told her sup­port­ers, “but not good­bye.”

‘‘ BE­ING WILL­ING TO TAKE A TOUGH VOTE ON THE AF­FORD­ABLE CARE ACT AND BE­ING WILL­ING TO GO VISIT TOWNS IN RU­RAL MIS­SOURI WHERE PEO­PLE TOOK HER HEAD OFF ABOUT IT — THAT TAKES GUTS AND GRIT. Roy Tem­ple, a for­mer chair­man of the Mis­souri Demo­cratic Party

KEITH MY­ERS kmy­ers@kc­star.com

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill em­braced her hus­band, Joseph Shep­ard, while con­ced­ing her race to Josh Haw­ley on Tues­day night in St. Louis.

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