It’s a given that U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is no Kamala Harris or Cory Booker or even Dick Durbin. That’s because Missouri is no California or New Jersey or Illinois. Those states have huge economies driven by dynamic multi-ethnic urban areas. Missouri is a withering state shrinking in importance with each Census, whose urban areas are stagnant remnants with a strong white racist presence.
Durbin’s Illinois is 72 percent white, Booker’s New Jersey is 68 percent white, and Harris’ California is 61 percent white, while McCaskill’s Missouri is 82.5 percent white. Combine that with the rural and exurban locations of white voters, and it’s easy to see why McCaskill has to run TV ads pitching a tough stand on immigration and bragging about the number of times she’s voted with Donald Trump.
It’s also why so many African-American voters are either lukewarm or hostile toward McCaskill. They believe, as state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. put it, that “Claire is going to have to bring her ass to St. Louis. Period. She’s going to have to show up, and it’s not just about talking. You have made some folks upset.”
McCaskill, famous for campaigning and holding town halls in rural, deep-red Missouri, once explained it to me this way: “In those counties, we know we’re going to lose. But if you lose with 38 percent of the vote instead of 25 percent, that adds up.”
McCaskill’s strategy is based on several facts. Missouri is an overwhelmingly white state. Missouri is a racist state. The default position for most white Missouri voters is conservative. Most white Missouri voters like Trump, guns, and white nationalism. They dislike abortion, liberals, and blacks. They know Missouri is being left behind educationally, culturally, and economically by more vibrant states that attract a young, multi-cultural workforce, so they retreat behind coded racial rhetoric about Missouri being “the real America” with “heartland values,” rather than recognizing that the state’s decline is because of the very policies they support.
But while McCaskill vacuums the couch cushions for spare dimes in rural Missouri, the part of the state where she has her richest support is taken for granted. The last time she ran, in 2012, St. Louis city and county went for McCaskill by a breathtaking 69 percent to 27 percent over Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin. Yet McCaskill recently complained that her North St. Louis County office in Ferguson has hardly any volunteers showing up. Black voters are holding McCaskill at arm’s length, reasoning that the only time McCaskill pays much attention to African-American issues is every six years, when the Buffalo Soldier cavalry has to ride to the rescue.
But this is the demographic reality of a Democrat running for statewide office in a red state. All you need to know about the majority voter mindset in the Show Me State can be summed up in one sentence: Missouri is one of only 10 states to have never elected a black person to statewide office.
So McCaskill ends up fighting a two-front war. She tries to placate racist, white, rural Missouri by staying away from blacks and white progressives, while at the same time facing a potential backlash from those very groups she needs the most. Luckily for her, as the Missouri GOP transitions from being a white conservative “Christian” party to the kind of full-blown ethno-nationalist party Slobodan Milosevic would approve of, it keeps nominating extremists to run against her.
Akin stumbled into his “legitimate rape” comment when I asked him when abortion should be allowed because he didn’t want to come out and say he believed abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, without exception. Under Trump and a Clarence Thomas-Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court, abortion will probably soon be illegal in most states, and the position Akin was reluctant to take will become law.
Josh Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general and the current Republican candidate for McCaskill’s Senate seat, is Akin with a Stanford B.A. and Yale Law School polish. But despite Hawley’s bi-coastal educational pedigree, he’s earned his Missouri cred by attacking the Starbucks crowd and going straight for Cracker Barrel voters: the Trump supporters who take shelter from a demographically changing America on Sundays by immersing themselves in Cracker Barrel’s nostalgia for the white 1950s while they wolf down chicken fried steak with a side of beans n’ greens.
Hawley’s strategy is to dog-whistle his way to Washington by fighting abortion and birth control, supporting voter suppression and discrimination in the name of religion, and giving his audience a double shot of white evangelical morality. “Government serves Christ’s kingdom rule, this is its purpose,” Hawley wrote in 2012. “Christ has become king and presently rules over the world and earthly government.”
Although Hawley says in the rest of the essay that Christ’s kingdom is one of social justice, he clearly had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Hawley’s actions have shown him to be a standard right-wing Missouri Republican theocrat with white nationalist overtones.
Hawley successfully helped argue the Hobby Lobby case before the U.S. Supreme Court, so now employers who think contraception is tantamount to abortion can refuse to cover birth control in their health insurance plans. Hawley has sued to have Obamacare declared unconstitutional, and to allow insurance companies once again to deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions like heart disease or diabetes. Hawley is appealing the court ruling that suspended part of Missouri’s voter photo ID law, supporting the ID law and the voter suppression it tries to disguise.
The GOP nominee bases his run on suppressing voter turnout in St. Louis and boosting it in outstate Missouri. Hawley figures that pulpit-pounding old-time religion and coded attacks on white liberals and blacks will be enough to get him to Washington thanks to rural and exurban voters.
He’d just better hope that no one at Cracker Barrel ever had an abortion, uses contraception, or has a preexisting medical condition.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.