ON SEPTEMBER 6, as Democratic activists fill a North Carolina arena for Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, Senator Claire McCaskill strolls onto the patio of The Royale, a modish St. Louis bar and grill. The crowd is rather different from the one in Charlotte: young professionals swilling craft beer, not fiftysomething delegates hoisting “forward” signs. Yes, the eatery’s televisions are tuned to Charlotte, but McCaskill ignores the proceedings, opting to schmooze instead. “Boy, that looks good!” she effuses as she passes a table of women splitting the “Boozy-Q” liquor-enhanced devil’s food cake. She soon decamps to a nearby watch-party for Obama volunteers where she actually takes in a few minutes of Joe Biden’s address before posing for photos. But within less than an hour of appearing at The Royale, McCaskill is gone. Missouri’s embattled Democratic senator will watch the president in private, at her mom’s house.
As it happens, I’ve come to Missouri to watch McCaskill hide. Earlier in the summer, the senator announced that she’d be skipping her party’s convention in what looked an awful lot like a desperate effort to distance herself from a president likely to get wiped out in Missouri. Obama, who ran close in the Show Me state four years ago, isn’t even campaigning here this time. McCaskill’s strategy boiled down to hiding from the same candidate she’d endorsed over Hillary Clinton four years earlier. And then, of course, something funny happened: McCaskill’s opponent, Representative Todd Akin, declared that women have natural contraceptive defenses in cases of “legitimate rape.” The blunder transformed the race from a likely steamrolling into a toss-up. It also gave McCaskill an opportunity to run right back into the arms of a party busily wooing moderate women by highlighting the GOP’s troglodytic gender politics. But as speaker after speaker in Charlotte takes time to note GOP leaders’ troubling legislative language about rape, McCaskill, who’s just been handed a gift-wrapped cudgel, still seems to be hiding.
If Akin’s comments have turned McCaskill into the Democratic heroine battling the very embodiment of the GOP war on women, her campaign hasn’t gotten the message. The TV spots she releases in the run-up to convention week body-check President Obama, boasting, “Claire’s never afraid to stand up to anyone, including the president—on cap-and-trade, anti-business regulations, and the Keystone pipeline.” Her stump speech still touts her status as the Senate’s most moderate member (“the sweet spot,” she calls it). Unless asked, McCaskill avoids the word “rape,” whether or not it is preceded by the term “legitimate.” Her prolific Twitter feed includes scant mention of the r-word. And now the polls, after swinging wildly toward McCaskill in the week following Akin’s gaffe, have tightened up. Is she squandering the greatest political gift a pol can get? To the contrary. McCaskill’s avoidance is its own strategy. And it might be brilliant.
CLAIRE McCASKILL is such a skilled campaigner that she can stump for a while before it dawns on you that she doesn’t offer many reasons to vote for Claire McCaskill. As she tours the state in a hulking, bug-smeared RV, McCaskill’s M.O. consists of offering concrete reasons not to vote for Todd Akin. “Todd Akin,” she tells union families at a sweltry Labor Day picnic in Springfield, “believes it’s a-OK to privatize Medicare and Social Security, the safety net for the middle class.” To college students at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, she cautions, “He also wants to take away the minimum wage.” Akin favors a tax cut for the wealthy. Akin calls student loans “a stage-three cancer of socialism.” And so on.
Running against Akin’s alleged extremism was McCaskill’s strategy all along (during the GOP primary, she even ran ads dubbing him the “true conservative,” helping doom more formidable general election foes). It was the theme of the very first spot she released after Akin became the nominee: Listing his many far-out beliefs, the ad asked, “Are those mainstream Missouri values? Because they’re Todd Akin’s.” Prognosticators still mostly wrote McCaskill off, but after Akin’s rape comments, the question suddenly had legs. Which doesn’t mean she is eager to address his boo-boo head-on: To even bring the subject up is to remind the state’s socially conservative electorate of the subject of abortion, which remains dangerous for the pro-choice Democrat. But the comments linger, ghost-like, as McCaskill delivers her blows with a tone that unmistakably asks, “Can you believe Akin said that?” Therein lies the long game. The rape comments cast Akin as a nut without any help from McCaskill. All she has to do is stay out of the way.
Akin’s gift has allowed McCaskill to take the most uninspiring aspect of her pre-“legitimate rape” strategy—the transparent triangulation—and use it as a weapon against Akin rather than a shield against Obama-haters. She gleefully quotes her Missouri senatorial predecessor Harry Truman, saying, “I don’t give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell,” a wink at her opponent. At a gathering of about 60 faculty and students at Westminster College, she proclaims, “They rank us from one to one hundred in the Senate, from most liberal to most conservative. You’re looking at number fifty.” Never has moderation looked so lethal. You almost fail to notice that she doesn’t offer anything new to the folks she acknowledges are “bogged down with student loans” or the “frustrated, angry, and confused middle class.” Rather, she promises the status quo on student aid and Medicare, plus long-term debt and deficit reduction.
“The only way Claire McCaskill gets elected is to make this election about anything but Claire McCaskill,” says John Hancock, a Missouri Republican strategist. In fact, the entire Missouri Senate race could be said to be about ducking certain issues. Akin, who largely disappeared from Missouri after his comments first aired on August 19, won’t talk about himself. McCaskill won’t talk much about herself. Neither of the candidates wants to talk about rape. Especially right after the scandal erupted, there was even a perverse incentive to avoid running up the numbers: If McCaskill were to hammer Akin too hard over his blunder—and, say, send his poll numbers plummeting—the Republican could be replaced with a GOP candidate who could make McCaskill the loser everyone had expected her to be. Or, for that matter, it could turn off the Democratic enthusiasts she needs but can’t cultivate with partisan appeals. “Don’t believe anyone who tells you this race is not gonna be close,” she tells a University of Missouri–Columbia student audience on the Tuesday of convention week, coming achingly close to mentioning you-know-what. “Anybody says, ‘Oh, she’s got it in the bag, he said that thing?’ No, no, it’ll be close.”
All of this calculated restraint makes the race fascinating on a theoretical level and soporific in its day-to-day incarnation. But McCaskill hints that it’s no accident. “I’m a very competitive person,” she continues. “The strategic decisions that go into a campaign are big ... and I’m better than average at it, if I might humbly say so.”
Molly Redden is a staff writer at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.