WASHINGTON • After Sen. Claire McCaskill and a GOP colleague proposed a new bill last month, a law professor in North Carolina posted a blog entry with the headline, "McCaskill Joins Republican Attack on Regulation."
Their bill was aimed at forging a compromise on extending the payroll tax break. But its provisions dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency prompted law professor Sidney Shapiro, of Wake Forest University, to conclude that McCaskill must be girding for a tough re-election fight.
"They didn't call it the 'more mercury pollution bill,' but that's what it effectively is," wrote Shapiro, a liberal blogger and an expert on regulations.
On the Senate's last budget vote of 2011, McCaskill was the only Democrat to vote no on spending $915 billion to keep various government agencies running until next fall. Likewise, she was one of just 21 senators supporting a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution — a version with no chance of passage in a vote labeled "bumper sticker politics" by one senator.
McCaskill's profile in the waning days of the 2011 Congress suggested a politician getting ready for a re-election campaign in 2012 — preparing for the riptide of attacks that already have begun and trying to better position an appeal to a Missouri electorate that has tilted right in recent years.
But in an interview, McCaskill argued that she's the same centrist Democrat that she has been during the first five years of her Senate term, and her record of frequently breaking with her party largely bears that out.
She pointed to her vote in 2007 to derail immigration reform, her opposition as early as 2008 to climate change legislation, and her efforts to ban earmarks — pet spending projects inserted in legislation — that started soon after she arrived in Washington.
Still, her votes with most members of her party for health insurance reform and stimulus spending provide Republicans with plenty of ammunition.
McCaskill's success in a election cycle that is shaping up as perilous for incumbents may depend on her ability to make the case for her independence.
Television ads running in St. Louis in recent weeks tying McCaskill to President Barack Obama presage what voters will see regularly in 2012. Those ads were run by Crossroads GPS — the Karl Rove-founded political entity operating on secret donations — which spent $1.5 million in Missouri in 2011 on what the group calls issue advocacy ads.
McCaskill is well aware of the ads. But she gives no indication of distancing herself from the president, who polls consistently say is unpopular in Missouri.
"Nothing would be phonier, nothing would be more typical of what people think of in terms of a politician, than for me to all of a sudden try to act like he (Obama) is not my friend. He is my friend, and I will be loyal to my friend," McCaskill said, adding that she doesn't feel the same loyalty to some of his policies.
She also bristled at any notion that "I'm a go-along-get-along kind of gal, and I don't exercise independence."
A vote tally by the Washington Post showed that Ben Nelson, a Nebraskan who also has been the target of Crossroads GPS ads, was the only Senate Democrat to break ranks with the party last year more often than McCaskill. Nelson last week announced he will not seek re-election.
In the 2007-2008 Congress, the first for Nelson and McCaskill, they were the two Democrats most likely to buck their party. In the 2008-2009 Congress, McCaskill was fourth among Democrats voting against their party; two of the four are now gone from the Senate.
In another vote analysis, this one by National Journal, McCaskill lands in the category labeled "centrist." Her votes last year placed her eighth on the list of least liberal — or most conservative — Senate Democrats, the same ranking she earned in her first year in Washington. (She hasn't been rated for 2011.)
As the Senate's assistant majority leader, Sen Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has the job of rounding up votes. Durbin said McCaskill routinely is on his 'short list" for Democrats he must persuade.
"She's always been courteous and polite and listened to me, but I've found repeatedly she says, 'I can't do that,'" Durbin said in an interview.
He added, "I know that she represents a state that is very independent."
'NOT SEXY' STUFF
Voter response to McCaskill's focus on government reform could be a wild card in her re-election drive. Besides fighting earmarks, she is known on Capitol Hill for summoning bureaucrats to her Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight and grilling them about failure to keep the reins on outside contractors.
Now that government spending is measured in the trillions of dollars, it is unclear whether lapses that waste tens of millions or even hundreds of millions register with voters. But any losses from failed oversight can leave McCaskill, a former Missouri state auditor, steaming with outrage as Pentagon and State Department officials squirm at a table in front of her.
"Very few senators have her kind of experience and are as passionate about oversight and accountability," said Angela Canterbury, of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.
McCaskill is perhaps best known in Washington for her relentless focus on earmarks, a campaign that came full circle recently when the Defense Department's new spending authorization emerged from the Senate earmark-free for the first time in decades. Her crusade against earmarks has often aligned her with GOP budget hawks and helped to usher in a moratorium on the practice that could become permanent.
But the Missouri Republican Party and aides to John Brunner, one of the GOP hopefuls campaigning for McCaskill's job, argued last month that she is hypocritical for having voted for past spending bills that contained earmarks.
And Crossroads GPS contends that McCaskill's advocacy for the Boeing Co., which builds military aircraft in St. Louis, amounts to 'soft earmarking" that lacks a paper trail.
The two Republicans competing with Brunner to be the party's Senate nominee also have leveled criticism against McCaskill. Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman has said McCaskill "pretends to be a moderate," criticizing the senator for supporting a judicial nominee opposed by the National Rifle Association. U.S. Rep. Todd Akin has said McCaskill's "rhetoric doesn't match reality," citing the controversy in early 2011 over her failure to pay personal property taxes on her private airplane.
McCaskill acknowledged that she doesn't know the extent to which voters know, or care, about her work on government contracting.
"It's not sexy," she said. "The vast majority of the work I've done out here is not even covered, because there's no partisan food fight and there's just not anything about it that demands coverage."
David Kimball, an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, predicted that voters will be hearing from McCaskill about her efforts.
"They may not be getting much attention but, at minimum, they feed into a narrative that I imagine will be part of her campaign — that she works to see that taxpayers' money is not wasted," he said.
After GOP candidate Roy Blunt trounced Robin Carnahan in Missouri's 2010 Senate race, McCaskill remarked that she was troubled by Democrats' lack of enthusiasm.
She may have work to do in cultivating enthusiasm to nail down her base. She angered the Steelworkers Union last fall when she was one of just three Democrats voting against advancing legislation making it easier to impose sanctions on China for unfair trade practices. After the measure passed the Senate, a union official complained: "And she's asking us for money."
On environmental matters, McCaskill's ranking plummeted last year to a 43 percent rating on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard. Her opposition to climate change legislation made her a target in 2010 of radio ads sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council even though she wasn't on any ballot.
McCaskill was among a handful of moderate Democrats pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency to abandon tighter curbs on urban smog. She recently endorsed stripping $50 million from Missouri River restoration next year in favor of rebuilding levees damaged by the summer flood.
"She hasn't been a champion for the environment, but we're hoping she redeems herself," said Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
McCaskill makes no apologies. Missouri is heavily dependent on electricity from coal, she said, asking: "What do people think is going to happen if we do all this stuff? Do they think that working people are not going to pay the bill? Of course they are. People on fixed incomes, the people I care about most as a Democrat, are going to have a huge gut punch if we force technology that's not available, or not affordable."
For now, political handicappers rate Missouri's Senate race a "toss-up," and among the most competitive contests in the nation — even though McCaskill's GOP opponent isn't yet determined.
Whoever emerges as her opponent, McCaskill faces a challenge that has tripped up many moderates recently: surviving in the middle as the major parties move farther from the center.
"The endangered species in Washington is the moderate, in both the House and the Senate. It's been tough on moderates for the last two decades," said James Thurber, who heads American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in Washington.
Gearing up for the campaign, McCaskill has shed 52 pounds through dieting and exercise, she said. Her last financial disclosure report showed $3.7 million in the bank. But she said she is not confident about victory.
"The question is, can I gather the resources as a moderate? Can I gather the enthusiasm as a moderate? And will the independents pay enough attention that I'm a moderate and not an extreme person? Because there's going to be a contrast between a moderate and a very extreme person," she said, likely signaling a campaign theme.