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Claire McCaskill Among the People

“I didn’t know Democrats raffled off guns.”

Thus went my involuntary response to the Lawrence County Democrats raffle table at the Springfield, Missouri annual Labor Day picnic, where the grand prize was a gleaming, brass-and-walnut Henry Golden Boy .22 rifle. (“The Rifle That Brings Out The West In You!” boasted the box).

“Oh yes,” replied Leah Faucett, the stout 62-year-old who was manning the table with her husband. Faucett, lackadaisically cooling herself with a Teamsters fan, was wearing a button that superimposed the words “The Right to Bare Arms” over a photo of a sleeveless Michelle Obama. “Republicans always try to make like we hate guns. Would you like to enter?”

Faucett’s was one of a half-circle of Democrat and union tables laid out in the sparse shade at Fassnight Park, where Sen. Claire McCaskill chose to rub elbows yesterday. An early supporter of President Obama, McCaskill spent much of 2012 being written off as the Democratic Senator least likely to succeed, a near-certain casualty in this fall’s election. So, in an effort to distance herself from the president, she opted to skip this week’s Democratic National Convention. I booked tickets to the Show-Me state to watch the veteran pol in what would probably be her final, despondent hours. 

And then Rep. Todd Akin, McCaskill’s opponent, went out and said something stupid enough to turn a likely slaughter into a real race. Which made McCaskill’s choice of Springfield over Charlotte seem a lot less desperate. Enjoyed by mostly working class families and their children, who ran amok in the inflatable obstacle course, the picnic gathered a handful of exactly the kind of voters McCaskill must turn out if she’s going to ride Akin’s “legitimate rape” booboo (and her non-attendance at the convention) to reelection: the rifle-blasting, churchgoing Democrats and Independents of outstate Missouri.

In the preceding weeks, several Missouri political scientists had cautioned me that McCaskill’s reelection is not a given. If you believe them, McCaskill has an abiding need to schmooze expertly with the residents of places like Springfield—a town that has a strip-mall density, but is still rural enough that what is left of several unlucky armadillos decorate its outlying median strips. (And sure enough, somewhere between Rolla and Springfield, local talk radio and the jumbo “AKIN” lawn signs appearing along I-44 had disabused me of my certainty that McCaskill would roll to victory, as the national flap over Akin suggested.) James Owen, a local candidate for the Missouri statehouse, boasted to me that the conservative Greene County, where we were standing, is something of a Missouri bellwether.

Knowing this, McCaskill was in top form, deftly offering deep concern or brimming enthusiasm depending on the voter who approached her. From the stage, constructed from a truck bed, her pro-labor stump speech elicited scattered boos and “no!”s from the wilted crowd the moment she mentions Akin’s name. When an admirer who said he was an auditor for 30 years introduced himself her, she shouted, “Auditors rock!” Impossibly, she didn’t sweat. Meanwhile, her staff and the press trailing her were fanning themselves with whatever they could get their hands on. 

But friendly auditors, and more to the point, union folk, make up only 6 or 7 percent of voters in a place like Greene County, where Republicans tend to draw about 30 percent of their votes, statewide. Owen, the state representative candidate, said approvingly of McCaskill that “she works this area harder than just about anyone”—“anyone” being Democrats. Long ignored by Missouri Democrats, McCaskill canvassed so vigorously in the Springfield area in 2006 that she paved the way for Obama, on the Saturday before the 2008 election, to speak at the nearby football field. In Southwest Missouri.

Its bleachers are just visible from the spot where yesterday, McCaskill nodded intently as she listened to an old man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and knee-high white socks under his Crocs.  The field is also not far away from the headquarters of the Assemblies of God, an international church whose congregants include Sarah Palin. (It’s a boxy, cerulean monstrosity snickeringly nicknamed “the Blue Vatican” by more liberal locals.) How many of the former type McCaskill can galvanize before Election Day will determine the impact of the latter type—the evangelical Christians of Missouri who are quickly forgiving Akin’s misstep.

Faucett, who had sold dozens upon dozens of raffle tickets before McCaskill even arrived, is staunchly confident. Referring to Akin, she said, “I don’t think she needed to be lucky. Look how hard she works.” She gestured toward McCaskill, who was now holding up a t-shirt from the American Postal Workers Union that read, “STILL HERE” in neon green letters. As a staffer took a photo, she wore a flawless, unbroken grin.