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WASHINGTON • Claire McCaskill has been called many things, but there’s a label she likes: raging centrist.

Emphasis on both words.

“I think I can rage sometimes,” McCaskill said. “I know it makes me unlikable. I am intense, I am passionate, I feel strongly about stuff. It is one of the reasons I have been able to get things done, because I don’t give up.”

The two-term Democratic senator added: “The people that are making all the noise right now are on the far left and on the far right. What I see clearly is that where we get things done is in the middle, when we work together, when people compromise. And we don’t have, frankly, leadership right now that wants to unite us.”

Republicans call her a raging opportunist, a liberal in centrist clothing.

“Whenever it is on the line, whenever it is a deciding vote, she is a consistent liberal,” former state Republican Party chairman John Hancock said, pointing to her votes for Obamacare and against Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

“That is what (her Republican opponent, Josh Hawley) is going to be pushing. She is going to be pushing she is a true moderate, she is the centrist of the Senate,” Hancock said. “The public can’t believe both of those things at the same time, so somebody’s going to have to win that argument.”

A counter history

More than any Missouri Democrat, McCaskill, 65, has survived a rising red current in a state fertile for the populist, evangelical, rural coalition that elevated Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.

McCaskill is the only Missouri Democrat to serve a full U.S. Senate term in the last 36 years, the only to be re-elected since 1974.

Now she faces in Hawley potentially her strongest Senate opponent, two years after Trump blitzed Hillary Clinton in Missouri by a wider margin than favorite son Harry S. Truman won it in 1948.

With the voices of her late mother and grandmother in her ear, McCaskill — who once described herself as a “motor mouth” — hopes her passions are viewed as conciliation, not confrontation.

“I hear my grandmother’s voice right now saying, ‘Work hard, always work hard, work harder than anyone else, and it will benefit you in life,’” McCaskill said.

“I think that I am happiest while I am both independent and trying to get people to agree on stuff,” she continued. “I am not reliable for the party structure. That causes problems, but it actually is who I am. I am very independent, and I think Missourians recognize that. At least I hope they do.”

A big moment will come in the middle of the fall campaign, when the Senate is expected to vote on Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

Hawley, who was 2 when McCaskill was first elected to the Missouri Legislature, is framing it as a prime test of McCaskill’s willingness to step across the aisle.

“Her views are tracking very predictably with the liberal elites,” Hawley said.

“I think that’s a real shame because those people don’t represent or reflect the state of Missouri.”

Independent ratings, however, consistently show McCaskill near the Senate’s ideological center. The nonpartisan website {a style=”font-size: 16px;” href=”https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/report-cards/2017/senate/ideology” target=”_blank”}govtrack.us,{/a} in 2017 ranked McCaskill less liberal than 41 of the other 47 senators in her Democratic caucus.

Only Sens. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., are ranked as more conservative among the 49 Democrats or independents now in the Senate in the nonpartisan “VoteView” matrix. All three, like McCaskill, face tough elections in November.

While battered for her vote against Gorsuch, McCaskill also voted for many in Trump’s Cabinet and roughly two-thirds of his judicial nominees so far. She has supported him on issues like the need for the Keystone XL pipeline and Trump’s decision to roll back former President Barack Obama’s “Waters of the USA” environmental initiative.

McCaskill has been a major player in getting bipartisan legislation passed on everything from internet sex trafficking (a coalition that included Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin) to making generic drugs and hearing aids more available and at lower cost (with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine).

When Collins was the leading Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the newly elected McCaskill suggested the committee sit alternately by party, rather than Republicans and Democrats on opposite sides of the dais as all other committees do.

McCaskill credited that seating arrangement with her having “quiet conversations” with Republicans that led to political alliances exposing corruption in military spending.

Collins, who always shows up near McCaskill in the middle of the Senate’s ideological ratings, said: “We’ve really worked together on a lot of issues over the years — homeland security issues, government shutdown issues where she shares the same view that I have that government shutdowns are never constructive.

“Claire is very smart, she is tough, but she is also collaborative when you share a common cause,” Collins said.

Norm Ornstein, a veteran political scientist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said that McCaskill is “very close to being the median senator,” ideologically.

“Now that doesn’t make her a conservative of the Joe Manchin variety,” Ornstein said. “She is very strong on issues like women’s reproductive rights, and immigration, and protecting voting. But she is more fiscally conservative than I would say the average senator.”

McCaskill voted for the Affordable Care Act, the controversial health care law that has split the political parties since its passage in her first term in the Senate.

But McCaskill has acknowledged problems in the law, and she was among 24 senators — 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats, led by Collins — who late last year tried to come up with fixes after Republican attempts to repeal failed. But with lukewarm support from leadership, the effort faltered.

McCaskill said she voted against former Sen. Harry Reid as her party’s Senate leader in 2014 because she had “had it up to my eyeballs” with partisanship.

But Republicans say Reid’s successor, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is so close to McCaskill that she paid to have Schumer and his wife join McCaskill’s family at a Cancun vacation, has been just as partisan.

Hawley calls Schumer a “New York liberal” and McCaskill’s “vacation buddy.”

“Well, certainly he has moments when he is not (bipartisan), and I tell him so,” McCaskill said of Schumer. “In fact I have told him to be quiet and quit getting his mug all over television, that he is not always helpful.”

GOP narrative

McCaskill beat Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Talent in the Democratic wave year of 2006. In 2012, McCaskill trailed Republican Todd Akin until his mid-August statement about “legitimate rape” propelled McCaskill to re-election.

“So she has won two statewide races in the last decade-plus where her favorable (poll) rating has been under 50 percent,” said Hancock, the former state Republican chair.

“It does happen, but at some point you got to think that will catch up to her. Of the three Senate races she has had, I am certain this will be the roughest because of the opponent, because of the environment. Trump is still sitting in a pretty good place in Missouri.”

That could explain why McCaskill has spent so much time campaigning in rural Missouri, holding town halls in counties where the president won 2-1, or more. McCaskill’s longtime advisers say she does that partly because she grew up in rural Missouri, partly because she learned in a 2004 loss for governor to Republican Matt Blunt that she needed to rewrite the old Democratic formula in Missouri.

“There was a playbook once upon a time that all Democrats were supposed to do was turn out enough voters in Kansas City and St. Louis to win,” said Adrianne Marsh, McCaskill’s 2012 campaign manager.

“She said there was nothing about that playbook that ever felt right to her. In 2004, she learned she was right, and that it wasn’t a winning strategy for a couple of reasons: You end up not listening to what’s important to the whole state and, from a practical standpoint, there aren’t enough votes.”

Former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon says that “when it comes to policy, she is eminently reasonable,” which irks Republicans, especially when they expected to beat her in 2012. “They feel like Akin was the right one and they could have won that race,” Nixon said.

McCaskill’s staffers refer to her free tweeting and occasional foot-in-mouth as a “hurricane” or “going rogue.”

But they say her communication style can be traced to her mother, Betty Anne Ward McCaskill, who died days before the 2012 election.

Betty Anne, her daughters said, could strike up a 15-minute conversation with a stranger on the other side of a gasoline station pump and, irrespective of background, find commonality in grandchildren or something else.

McCaskill wrote in her book “Plenty Ladylike” that she got her “reputation for being direct and to the point” from her father, Bill, but that her mother — “the original multitasker” — preached commonality and common sense.

“Claire was the one who was fun to play with, but at the same time there was just this sense of the kids and people around Claire — they wanted to know what she said, they wanted to know what she was doing,” McCaskill’s sister, Anne Morah, said. “People felt the same way about my mom. She was just a strong presence in so many people’s lives.”

Claire McCaskill called her mother “just one of the most open and authentic people that I have known in my life, and I am so grateful.

“I heard her voice” after the 2016 election, Sen. McCaskill said. “‘Yes, Donald Trump won the state by 19 points, but these are still the same people that you have known all these years. Get out there and listen to them.’”


Claire McCaskill

Job • U.S. senator, elected 2006

Age • 65

Born • Rolla, Mo.

Previous elected offices • Missouri auditor, 1999-2007; Jackson County prosecutor, 1993-1998; Jackson County Legislature, 1991-1992; Missouri House, 1983-1988

Other jobs • Assistant prosecutor, lawyer in private practice

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