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McCaskill: "I will have to work very hard" to get re-elected

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Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., photographed outside the Senate chamber earlier this year.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., photographed outside the Senate chamber earlier this year.

WASHINGTON -- Claire McCaskill is well aware of the target on her back heading into her 2012 re-election campaign.

Missouri's 2010 Senate race barely had ended last month when Republican operatives in Washington and Jefferson City set their sights on McCaskill, seemingly substituting her name for defeated Robin Carnahan's in a flurry of hard-edged news releases.

"McCaskill-Backed Democrat Party Leaders Prepare To Ram Through $1.1 Trillion Omnibus" read part of a headline in a National Republican Senatorial Committee release.

"Extreme Makeover: McCaskill Edition," began an attack from the the Missouri Republican Party dealing with the same issue.

That omnibus legislation -- rejected in the lame duck session's final days -- had been trimmed in size as a result of efforts by McCaskill and a GOP colleague, Jeff Sessions of Alabama. And McCaskill told her party's leaders that wouldn't vote for it unless those budget constraints were imposed for three years running.

Nonetheless, the episode forewarned McCaskill of what lay ahead: unremitting scrutiny from political opponents and efforts to tie her President Barack Obama, whose popularity slipped markedly in Missouri last year.

In the waning days of Congress, McCaskill's support of the defeated Dream Act -- intended to give a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants -- drew withering comments from right-leaning voters back home.

Explaining her vote, McCaskill noted the requirement of military service or attending college. She also quoted the book of Ezekiel: "The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son."

In an interview in her Washington office in the waning days of Congress, McCaskill made clear her intention to fight to win a second term. She talked about fundraising, her relationship with Obama and what she described as her "great moments of independence."

She also said she saw no great shift in sentiments among Missouri voters in November -- but rather a notable lack of enthusiasm among Democrats.

Q You have the reputation as a reformer when it comes to Senate processes, budget constraints, outside contracting. Do you think Missourians understand this and do you think they want a reformer in the Senate?

A My sense is Missourians, more than anything, want someone who does not go along to get along. They want someone who is willing to stir it up and pay a political price if necessary to instill some good common sense. And there's a lot of things about this place that have no common sense. The rules are ridiculous. The efficiency of this place is enough to make the top of your head pop off. There is a lethargy that is surrounding the idea of seniority on certain comittees.

What you're really supposed to do when you get here is just kind of learn the ropes. And then just live with it. And I think, I hope anyway, that Missourians have figured out that that's not what I've done.

Q A year ago, you expressed to me your frustration and said that it was okay if you don't get elected. Do you still feel that way?

A I do. One of the biggest problem, if not the biggest problem in Congress, is that too many members see their most important job as figuring out a way to stay here. And it colors everything. It means don't be controverisal. Don't step on anybody's toes.You've got to shave the edges because what you don't want to do is make anybody mad at you. Because if people are mad at you, you can't get re-elected.

If I don't get re-elected, it's not the end of the world. I'm very, very blessed. And if I don't get re-elected, there's lots of things I'd like to do with the rest of my life in which, I think, I could contribute and make a difference. But don't mistake that for me not being willing to fight to hold on to my job. I will fight as hard as I know how to get Missourians to rehire me.

So it's 100 percent that you're running again?

A A hundred precent. I'm going to seek re-election, and I will work as hard as I know how. And I know I will have to work very hard.

Q As we go into this new cycle, how do you feel about being locked in an office for long periods of time and calling up to ask people for money?

A It's the worst part of the job, by far. And I hate it. I'm hopeful that more and more people will begin to do what is happening more and more -- and that is people giving small amounts. The Internet is a double-edged sword. because there's a lot of misinformation there that people grab on to and believe is factual. The good side of the Internet is lots and lots of people can give small amounts of money."

Q Is it your sense that Missouri has grown more conservative in recent years?

A I think Missouri has always been a right-of-center state and continues to be. But the thing I love about Missouri is that there is a huge swath of very stubbornly independent people that do not vote on party. I like to tell people, remember that this is a state that elected John Ashcroft governor and Harriett Woods lieutenant governor in the same election.

Q The outcome of the November election as far as Missouri voters has to be troubling to you.

A Certainly. I'd be candid if I didn't say of course, it was worrisome to me. Clearly the results would indicate that they are very disappointed with what is going on in Washington. But the interesting thing is a lot of that disappointment was expressed by people not voting.

What worried me most was the lack of enthusiasm on the Democratic side of the equation. It was fascinating to me that Roy Blunt got less votes in Greene County, his home county, than Jim Talent did. So it's not as if there was a huge swing from one side to another. There was just a real lack of enthusiasm on our side of the equation.

Q President Obama has a weak job approval rating in Missouri. Are you worried about him not focusing on Missouri as in '08?

A  I can't worry about that. First of all, I can't do a lot about it. So what's the use of worrying about it? I'm worried about making sure that people know my record, know that I've been capable of great moments of independence, that I've not been afraid to swim upstream if I thought it made sense. would...My voting record is very clear and I've just got to make sure tha Missourians don't get distracted by the distortions that I'm sure will be front and center.

Q What does Obama need to do to right his ship politically?

A I think he needs to show that he understands that we need to spend less money. I think spending is very important; getting spending under control. I understand we had to do some big things because we were in the midst of an economic crisis and there were price tags associated with those big things. But it's time to pivot; it's time to show that we get it, that there has to be more discipline applied to the spending of people's money...

Q Do you still enjoy the job?

A There are some days that I've just gotten so frustrated I'd just say 'Oh my Lord in heaven'. But I'm really lucky. It's a very intellectually stimulating job. If you're a policy wonk and you're intellectually curious, it's a great place to come to work every day. It never stops. And you know if you dive in and work really hard, you might be able to make a difference. That's about as good as it gets.



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