Claire McCaskill's Country Road Show

McCaskill works to show rural voters she cares, gets mixed results

Sen. Claire McCaskill speaks at a town hall in Warrenton, Mo. / Brent Scher
August 30, 2017

BOWLING GREEN, Mo.—All the stops on Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill's town-hall trip to small towns scattered throughout Missouri follow the same script.

First she leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. Then she tells everybody she works with Republicans all the time and cites the same two pieces of bipartisan legislation that "never made a headline." Then, to ensure her crowd she's not skipping tough questions, she gets all the people who say they would never vote for her to raise their hand and chooses one of them to pick the questions out of a basket. That part gets laughs every time.

You can also count on hearing the same few anecdotes. When she's asked about guns, she says, "My mom had to keep cream of mushroom soup in the cabinet so she could put it on what my dad shot. Who knows what vermin was under that cream of mushroom soup." If she's asked about government regulation, she says, "I'm from rural Missouri, it's in my DNA to not want the government in my business." She also has a nice bit on how, in Missouri, 30 percent of people are watching Fox News and 20 percent are watching MSNBC, but she wants to talk to the 50 percent who are watching "Dancing With The Stars." That also gets laughs.

The aim of the traveling town hall show is to convince rural voters that McCaskill, who grew up in a small Missouri town but has spent the last decade in Washington, D.C., can still relate to the people her party has lost.

"One of the things that really bugs me about my colleagues in Washington is they wanted to look down their nose at people that voted for Donald Trump," McCaskill told reporters after a town hall in Pike County, which Trump carried by 47 points.

"We have done a terrible job at understanding the frustrations of folks in the rural parts of our state," McCaskill said at an earlier town hall in a county Trump won by 45 points. "We've missed an opportunity to show up, show respect, listen, and learn."

One of those voters is Stan, a retired public school teacher from Troy, who said McCaskill was "stunned" when she saw the election results because she lost touch with people like him.

"When the presidential results came out, Washington people like McCaskill were just absolutely stunned that people out here don't believe what they believe," Stan said.

McCaskill is certainly showing up—she visited 10 small towns scattered across Missouri in just three days last week—but many of the voters left the town halls doubtful she was listening.

"I went to one of her town hall meetings before ObamaCare was passed to encourage her to listen," said Barbara Hooper, also from Troy. "We didn't want it, but she let us know she knew what was best for us."

"I just wanted to hear her now," Hooper said. "I thank her for coming, but I don't agree with anything she said."

Hooper also said she, too, keeps cream of mushroom soup and that it "doesn't make her a hero."

McCaskill likes to say during her town halls that her premiums have also gone up—from $400 to over $700 a month—and that she turned down the employee contribution that would cover part of the cost to see "what it felt like for everybody else."

"I want to feel what everybody else is feeling," McCaskill said. "It's very, very expensive for someone that doesn't get subsidies. I feel your pain."

Some voters expressed doubt that McCaskill could truly "feel their pain," given she is one of the richest members of Congress, worth nearly $20 million.

McCaskill said it's a "fair criticism," admitting her premium is "very manageable" given her family's wealth. She thinks she could have chosen a better phrase than "feel your pain" to convey that she wants to "first-hand witness what people are going through."

Her most difficult task is conveying that message to the voters, present at all of her town halls, who are clamoring for her to support single-payer health care.

After hearing McCaskill explain her belief that single-payer would be "too expensive," an elderly man in the back row of a town hall in Monett said the argument was over.

"Single payer is coming, you might as well get used to it," he said. "If you don't like it, fine, we'll find somebody that does."

The man and his wife stood up and left.

In Warrenton, a man stood up after hearing McCaskill discuss health care to say, "I just want to go on the record to say, the only thing that is ever going to work with health care is single-payer Medicare for all." He also left before the town hall finished.

Andy Young, a retired farmer who went to a town hall in Pike County, was told single payer was "just not going to happen right now." She says she knew what McCaskill was going to say, and that she thinks it's going to take more than pressure from voters like her to change her mind.

"I knew what she was going to say, I just wanted to hear her say it," said Young, who wore a Pike County Democrats sticker on her shirt.

"I think she has her own reasons why she doesn't support single-payer that she doesn't share with people," Young said. "Who are her donors? That's where I start whenever I see logic in something that isn't being done."

"She's a politician. Any politician can change," Young said.

Jim Brown, a farm owner from Troy, showed up to complain that the EPA was overregulating his land through its "waters of the United States" rule. He complained that McCaskill said during the town hall that she was against the EPA's rule, even though she voted to uphold it, but he chose to drop it.

"I just let it go," Brown said. "I would not vote for her for love or money, but I wanted to see what she said."

Brown, like Hooper and Young, said he knew what he was going to hear. "She's a politician, so it's all canned answers," Brown said.

Unlike the rowdy town halls Republicans have faced throughout the year, McCaskill's town halls are small and civil. She says it's a sign of where the enthusiasm is.

"People who show up are really just the people who show up," McCaskill told reporters. "It's really about where is the enthusiasm right now in terms of people who want to show up at town halls."

But Republican voters say they just choose to have respect.

"We respect you, and we're not going to go out and riot and carry on just because you showed up," one man told her after a town hall in Ozark.

McCaskill says she doesn't think she could win the election unless she shows that the respect goes both ways.

"I made mistakes earlier in my career by not showing respect and not showing up," she said. "I think it is a mistake for anybody to think they can represent this entire state if they don't try to travel and campaign in the entire state."

"I've been reminded how great people are all over the state," McCaskill said. "There really isn't that big of a difference between folks in the city and folks in the country if you just slow down and listen."

McCaskill says she hopes to do a town hall each week through the election.