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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The McCaskill Template: Election Strategy for Dems in Red States

If Democrats are ever going to regain majority control of Congress, they will have to hold seats, as well as win new ones. For an instructive read about how it’s done, read Perry Bacon, Jr.’s 538 post, “Missouri’s Claire McCaskill Has Been Savvy And Lucky — Can She Do It Again?” As Bacon writes,

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri has survived the growing Republicanismof her state by being good at politics. But she’s also been a bit lucky. And that combination may save her again this November…McCaskill is not just politically endangered because she, along with nine other Senate Democrats, is running in a red state. President Trump won Missouri by 19 percentage points.

Bacon goes on to note that Trump’s popularity since the 2016 election has tanked in Missouri, down to 2 points net favorability in one poll and 4 in another. That helps McCaskill. So does the nasty scandal centering on Missouri’s indicted Republican Governor Eric Greitens, whose refusal to resign has divided the state GOP and has likely damaged Republican credibility to provide good leadership in the eyes of some voters. McCaskill’s re-election race is very close, according to polls:

That same Emerson poll showed McCaskill tied at 45 percent with Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is the favorite to win the Aug. 7 GOP Senate primary in the state. Two other polls from April showed McCaskill with tiny leads (1 and 4 percentage points) over Hawley. So McCaskill is competitive, despite the conservatism of the state. But she is far from a shoo-in. This is likely to be a close race, with both parties spending heavily.

McCaskill is an emblematic centrist Democrat in the sense that “She has voted with Trump’s position on about 46 percent of legislation4 in the Senate, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump score tracker, enabling the senator to position herself as not adamantly opposing everything the president does like some of her more liberal colleagues. At the same time, she voted against the major initiatives that Trump and congressional Republicans pushed last year, the health policy proposals that would have gotten rid of parts of the Affordable Care Act and the tax overhaul.” McCaskill understands that many voters who self-identify as conservatives support liberal policies that are properly presented.

Credit McCaskill with agile and gutsy campaign skills, as Bacon explains:

If you’ve followed McCaskill’s career, it’s not surprising that she is well-positioned in 2018 — she seems to be good at getting elected, staying in office and anticipating where politics is going. In 1992, she was the first woman elected to be the county prosecutor in Jackson County, which includes Kansas City. She was later elected state auditor and just barely lost her 2004 gubernatorial bid. In 2006, she was the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Missouri, defeating a GOP incumbent. Early in 2008, she endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, a move that was bold and controversial, since she was the first female senator to embrace Obama over Clinton.

In 2012, McCaskill was in trouble, running for reelection in a year when Obama was on the ballot but unpopular in Missouri. So McCaskill and her campaign ran ads ahead of the GOP primary in Missouri, trying to boost the most conservative candidate in that race, then-GOP Rep. Todd Akin…The goal was to get conservative primary voters to back Akin as a way to annoy Democrats…McCaskill felt Akin would be the weakest of the GOP candidates in the general election. It’s not clear how much that ad boosted Akin in the primary, but he won that race and McCaskill easily defeated him in the general election.

McCaskill’s luck kicked in again —  she “wasn’t on the ballot in 2010 or 2014, years when Republicans were dominant in congressional elections.” And if she wins this year, “it would be quite a feat. She would have won three straight Senate elections in Missouri, while the state went from one where Democrats lost at the presidential level by 7 percentage points (2004) to almost 20 points (2016).”

The thing about McCaskill’s ‘lucky breaks’ is that she wasn’t just a passive recipient of good luck; when ‘luck’ came near, she pounced on it with a bold response at every opportunity, learning from mistakes and tweaking her strategy and tactics to leverage advantage at pivotal political moments. In addition to being an alert campaigner, she is also very good at setting a positive tone in television interviews and uses media adroitly.

None of this is to say that McCaskill’s tactics can be replicated in every campaign. But her strategy of paying close attention to her adversaries weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and then addressing them boldly and driving wedges through the opposition is exemplary. She has also shown that a centrist political persona can be an asset in winning support for hot button progressive reforms, including Obamacare, gun safety, immigration, reproductive rights and others. Democrats running in red states and districts can benefit by studying her example.

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