MACON, Mo. — Claire McCaskill took a quick poll Thursday in the middle of her seventh town hall in two days, asking constituents to raise their hands if they supported the Senate GOP’s Obamacare repeal plan.
Two hands rose among the crowd of about five dozen in this deep-red county. When McCaskill asked the same question earlier Thursday at a public meeting in Moberly, another rural Missouri town where President Donald Trump won overwhelmingly, no one raised their hands.
And when the two-term Democratic senator asked Macon residents gathered in a local high school cafeteria if “we ought to have single-payer health care,” about a dozen hands shot up.
“I’m not there yet,” McCaskill said, “because of the costs.”
“But I certainly wish we would have provided the public option” in Obamacare, she added, even though “I was against it at the time. So I think I made a mistake on that.”
McCaskill, 63, is facing a bitter re-election battle next year in a state Trump carried by 19 percentage points. Yet the GOP decision to push a partisan Obamacare repeal measure, excluding her and other red-state Democrats who had felt political pressure to overhaul the health care law, appears to have given the vulnerable incumbent a dose of confidence even as Republicans in Missouri and Washington slam her as too far-left for the state.
McCaskill repeatedly jabbed the GOP during her town halls this week for eagerly voting on a repeal bill before Trump took office and when a veto from President Barack Obama was guaranteed — “when it didn’t count,” as she put it at a Wednesday town hall in Ashland, Mo.
McCaskill predicted the Republican repeal effort would collapse and echoed party leaders in vowing to work with the GOP on fixes for the Affordable Care Act if that happens.
“I think it is possible to repair it,” McCaskill told constituents in Ashland. “And by the way, a bunch of my Republican colleagues want to help do that, too.”
McCaskill said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whom she works with as the committee’s top Democrat, has told her that he wants to bolster the faltering Obamacare exchanges, “and then figure out a way to go forward.”
That McCaskill would vocally endorse a new public option after sounding wary as recently as last year was hardly a sure thing at the beginning of this year. But Republicans who had seen the Missourian, along with the other nine Democratic senators up for reelection next year in states Trump won, as a potential backer of Obamacare repeal have found themselves stymied.
Austin Stukins, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, slammed McCaskill for shutting out the GOP on health care and challenged her to offer “her plan.”
“She was presented the opportunity to work with” the GOP, Stukins said in an interview, “and she chose not to. In fact, she refused to.”
“She’s telling folks that ‘yeah, absolutely I want to work with the president,’ but she voted against seven of his Cabinet nominees,” he added.
Republicans brought their own message to McCaskill’s Ashland town hall, hoisting a “Comrade Claire” sign to mock the Democrat for misrepresenting her record of meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak even as she criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for similar errors. McCaskill told a constituent who asked about the Russia misstep in Ashland that she had claimed “in error” to have never met with Kislyak despite encountering him at two other events.
After her Thursday town hall in Macon, McCaskill told POLITICO that she suspected the GOP had “convinced this guy to ask this question” about when she crossed paths with Kislyak, one of several connections to the ambassador included a contribution to a foundation linked to him.
“Nobody, as I’m traveling around the state, is asking about it — by the way, as it relates to President Trump either,” McCaskill said of Russia. Republicans have seized on “a shiny object that’s distorted, and frankly not true, [to] try to make it into something it’s not because they don’t want to talk about the meat-and-potato issues,” she added.
McCaskill didn’t shrink from policy issues during her 10 town halls, declaring that she would try to break a record for engaging with constituents and focus on conservative areas to "show respect" for those who didn’t vote for her. She has proposed letting anyone whose county doesn’t have an Obamacare insurer to get access to the same plans that lawmakers can shop for and told constituents she had received an email request from Ivanka Trump to work together on paid family leave.
And even as Republicans accused McCaskill of betraying her self-described moderate persona, she told a town hall Thursday that she would "probably" support the House-passed legislation known as "Kate’s Law," which hikes penalties for illegal immigration.
McCaskill opposed the 2015 version of the bill, but spokesman John LaBombard said she is "likely to support it" in its current form "because this is a different bill than the old version, which had included mandatory minimums. This version doesn’t." McCaskill continues to oppose related legislation yanking federal funding for so-called "sanctuary cities" that do not support federal deportation efforts.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Michael McAdams didn’t buy that explanation, slamming "Claire McCaskill’s latest flip-flop." Changing positions on the immigration bill "highlights her political pandering and the reality that Missourians can’t trust a word that comes out of her mouth,” McAdams said in a statement.
But when it came to health care, McCaskill offered self-assurance on once hot-button concepts for Democrats as she addressed one Macon constituent who opposed single-payer health care,
"I get that," she told the crowd. "He said ‘we believe in individuality, not socialism.’ But when you think about insurance … that’s kind of what it is. Everybody pays into a pool."