McCaskill Blames Senate Defeat On Democratic 'Failure' With Rural America | St. Louis Public Radio

McCaskill Blames Senate Defeat On Democratic 'Failure' With Rural America

Originally published on November 30, 2018 10:22 am

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is about to head home after losing her bid for re-election, and in defeat she's blaming her own Democratic Party for abandoning moderates.

McCaskill has represented Missouri in the Senate since 2007. During her tenure, President Obama lost Missouri twice and President Trump won it handily. McCaskill was one of 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election in states Trump won; four lost.

In an interview with Morning Edition host Rachel Martin, McCaskill characterized her loss as a "failure" of the Democratic Party "to gain enough trust with rural Americans," and she predicted her party will struggle to win other seats as long as President Trump remains in office.

"This demand for purity, this looking down your nose at people who want to compromise, is a recipe for disaster for the Democrats," she said Thursday in her Capitol Hill office. "Will we ever get to a majority in the Senate again, much less to 60, if we do not have some moderates in our party?"


Interview Highlights

On Democrats' handling of Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court

I don't think my vote [against Kavanaugh] hurt me as much as the spectacle that occurred. There were mistakes made by my party in terms of how that was handled. I don't think that communication [from Christine Blasey Ford] to the judiciary committee should have been kept private as long as it was. The FBI deals with a lot of confidential information, and that would have absolved [judiciary committee ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein] of the very real perception that this was an 11th-hour attempt to gut a guy.

On House Democrats' future investigations into the Trump administration

They've got to be careful with their oversight that it does not dwarf their messaging about how much we want to get done for the people of this country. If we focus on just going after Trump, then he has his foil. He will blame Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats for every problem he has. He clearly will never take any responsibility for any mistakes he's made. And frankly, a lot of his mistakes have been pointed out, and it hasn't really moved a lot of the voters we need to move.

I want them to be very cautious and careful to not go after him because they can, but to be careful about where they put the emphasis of their messaging and time so the American people don't think this is just about Trump-bashing. We're in trouble if they do that.

On why it's so hard to compromise

The problem is the politics of compromise. We have developed into a society where everyone can go to their chosen news outlet for affirmation and not information. They can go to their chosen websites, their chosen Facebook pages, for affirmation and not information. Everyone gets in their own bubble. And when you're in that kind of echo chamber, it feels very scary to step outside of it. People have black armbands on around the Democratic caucus, because it feels like we've lost Lindsey Graham. He is someone who was willing to step outside that bubble from time to time and really do the hard work on issues like immigration. We're mourning right now because we fear he's gone.

On Republicans' defense of the president

The Republican Party is the party of Donald Trump right now. Now, that really helped him in Missouri. And it helped him in Indiana. And it helped him [in] North Dakota. But it hurt him in a whole lot of other places. And I actually don't see that getting better for Republicans. And I think there will be Republicans 10 years from now that will look back with regret that they did not stand up and speak out at moments that were critical. Whether it's the murder of a journalist in a Turkish embassy [consulate], or whether it's somebody on his team negotiating for financial dealings for his company after he became president, all of this kind goes in the same big bag. I would be nervous if I were some of the Republicans, that are my friends and colleagues in the Senate, that, like me, have held their tongue.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's that time on Capitol Hill when the incumbents who lost their elections start to pack up their offices.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: Well, we - we're packing, definitely. We've packed a lot. I mean, that's completely empty. So think of all the tchotchkes that hung out there (laughter).

MARTIN: Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill lost her Senate re-election bid to Republican Josh Hawley. As a Democrat in a red state, McCaskill positioned herself as a moderate. And as she gets ready to leave, she's got a warning for her own party.

MCCASKILL: I think this demand for purity, this looking down your nose at people who want to compromise, is a recipe for disaster for the Democrats. Will we ever get to a majority in the Senate again, much less to 60, if we do not have some moderates in our party? People want to say, oh, if you were just, you know, more single-payer, Claire, if you were just more to the left, well, a lot more people would have turned out to vote - wrong. Believe me. I know them all.

MARTIN: So then how does a self-described moderate Democrat win in Missouri?

MCCASKILL: I think a self-described Democrat can win in Missouri after the Trump era. I believe the pendulum will swing back. And we'll get back to the place where we can cut those margins in rural Missouri and do well in other parts of the state and still prevail statewide. I don't think this state is gone.

MARTIN: Who's your best Republican friend in the Senate?

MCCASKILL: Susan Collins. It's not close.

MARTIN: That friendship makes sense in that you are both in the middle. Is there someone who is more squarely on the conservative end of the spectrum?

MCCASKILL: I get along with everybody. You know, Rob Portman and I have worked well together. Pat Toomey and I have done some good work together. So I would say that, you know, there's just a handful. I mean, you know, I mean, I just think Tom Cotton's kind of rude. You know, he just is not very friendly. You know, Ted Cruz has gotten more friendly. You know, I think he's kind of figured out that trying to be the lonely pure soldier for the Tea Party didn't quite turn out the way he had hoped it would. And he has certainly been much more warm and friendly and funny. There's very few of them. You know, it's probably very rude of me to name names. But, you know, what the hell, right? (Laughter).

MARTIN: But as you talk about the need for compromise and consensus, do you lament the fact that there aren't those closer ties, personal relationships?

MCCASKILL: I don't think that's the problem. I think the problem is the politics of compromise. There's really - people have black armbands on around the Democratic caucus because we feel like we've lost Lindsey Graham. You know, he is somebody who was willing to step outside that bubble from time to time and really do the hard work. We're mourning right now because we fear he's gone.

MARTIN: I want to ask about the newfound power that your colleagues in the House will have come January. They'll have the power to subpoena or have power to hold the Trump administration accountable in a new, more robust way. Do you think that there is an inherent risk in that?

MCCASKILL: I think they've got to be careful with their oversight. If we focus on just going after Trump, he will blame Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats for every problem he has. And frankly, a lot of his mistakes have been pointed out, and it hasn't really moved a lot of the voters that we need to move. So I just want them to be very cautious and careful. So the American people don't think this is just about Trump bashing.

MARTIN: McCaskill is thinking about future elections, but not as a candidate. Instead, she wants to help a new generation of women in politics.

MCCASKILL: I think I can really help other women, you know, understand that really difficult balance you have to have as a woman of being strong and opinionated, but very careful that you don't go too far over the line so that you're in the B-word territory. And that's a really hard balance. And a lot of it has to do with being willing to be self-effacing and have a sense of humor.

MARTIN: But isn't it annoying, to say the least, and, I mean, infuriating at most to have to be charming and funnier than male candidates?

MCCASKILL: Yeah. Oh, yeah. It's awful. But I'm just being realistic.

MARTIN: I do want to remind people of this particular anecdote when you were in the state legislature. And a state senator who has now since passed away wasn't so happy with you about a particular issue and on the floor of the state Senate called you a whore.

MCCASKILL: His son was the attorney general. And I was going after the nepotism that was going on in his budget, courtesy of his father, who was a very powerful state senator, I might add. Well, yeah, the speaker of the House, when I was a young legislator, I went up on the dais to ask him how I could get my first bill out of committee. And he asked me if I brought my knee pads.

That's the kind of stuff that in the early '80s, a young, single lawyer from Kansas City endured in the Missouri state legislature. I got through it with a sense of humor. And, you know, I kept saying to myself, I'm going to have better jobs than these guys before this is over, and as it turned out, I did.

MARTIN: Claire McCaskill was elected to Congress in 2006 after years of working in state government. But she says right now, that is not what voters want.

MCCASKILL: The American electorate is pretty fickle when it comes to presidential politics. They want a new bright and shiny object. Donald Trump was new and bright and shiny. I think it was a fake shiny, but it was new and different. This is something where there's two things. They are inspirational. And they make people believe they can change something. And I can't tell who is going to be capable of that important duo. My gut tells me is probably going to be somebody who doesn't work in Washington.

MARTIN: Currently. It's going to be an outsider.

MCCASKILL: Correct. I'll just tell you, if you're of Washington, it hurts. You don't see very many campaign posters with the classic picture of somebody on the steps of the Capitol. It's like nobody wants to acknowledge that they hang out here anymore. And there's a reason for that - we're really unpopular.

MARTIN: Does that make you sad?

MCCASKILL: Yeah. Oh, it makes me very sad. You know, my experience makes me such a stronger senator. So it does make me sad because people who are good at this don't get any credit for it because there are just political hacks that have been there too long. Time for a change.

MARTIN: What's your last day in this building?

MCCASKILL: I think it will probably be the end of the week, like the 14 will probably be the last day.

MARTIN: And what will you feel on your last day?

MCCASKILL: I'm already feeling it - proud. I will feel sad. I will feel honestly excited about the future. I think I just have to keep reminding myself how lucky I am. I've gotten up every day. My feet have hit the ground. I thought, whoa, boy I get to do this one more day. How lucky am I? So I've got to just stay on the positive. But there'll be a great deal of emotion just because this has been my life.

MARTIN: Outgoing Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.