U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill was prepared Wednesday for a repeat of the hostile reception she received at her last town hall in politically volatile Jefferson County in 2009.
A largely angry crowd had packed the Jefferson College gym on that hot August day, waving “Don’t tread on me” flags in the bleachers and shouting their disdain of then-President Barack Obama’s proposed health care plan.
But Wednesday’s town hall was closer to a lovefest for the Democrat. The audience was much smaller and overwhelmingly friendly. People asked to take selfies with McCaskill, and cheered as she pledged to back the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans want to repeal.
The senator is among several congressional members from across the country, including Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, who are holding town halls while Washington breaks for Easter. But most of Missouri’s members of Congress are not.
Amid the pro-Democrat fervor, she tried to tamp down the crowd’s rancor over President Donald Trump. There were discussions about the status of investigations by the FBI and Congress into alleged election meddling by the Russians; McCaskill said she put most of her faith in the FBI’s probe.
One of the questioners asked if a new election could be held or how soon the new president could be impeached for treason. McCaskill bluntly explained that wasn’t happening.
"I understand that a lot of people who didn't support Trump are upset. But treason is a serious word and I think we've got to be careful about throwing it around,” she said, adding that she doubted the GOP-controlled Congress would impeach Trump.
She admitted after the town hall that she was surprised by the contrast from 2009. “It was terrific to have a crowd that was largely supportive,’’ she said.
But she said she was somewhat disappointed: “I had hoped there’d be more Republicans here to ask some of the tougher ones, because I think that’s really important at these town halls. That you don’t just get friendly questions.”
In fact, that was one of the reasons she was holding most of this week’s town halls in predominantly GOP territory. McCaskill did carry Jefferson County in 2012, but the county often had favored Republicans — notably Trump — in recent statewide elections.
Missouri GOP criticizes McCaskill’s views
Paul Marting, a retiree from Byrnes Mill, appeared to be among the few critics in the crowd. Before the town hall, Marting observed that he viewed most Democrats — McCaskill included — as “cry babies’’ because they were so vocal about their opposition to Trump.
Marting ended up with a featured role at the town hall. McCaskill told the crowd that she wanted “someone who would never vote for me’’ to pull the written audience questions out of a bowl, so no one could accuse her of rigging it. Marting agreed to help out.
Even so, state Republican Party executive director Austin Stukins later called the proceedings a “rigged dog-and-pony show,” saying McCaskill was using the town halls to improve her image before she faces voters in her 2018 re-election bid.
Stukins also attacked McCaskill for “supporting Planned Parenthood and things of that nature that have nothing to do with the current modern values of Missouri voters.”
McCaskill said she is getting more supportive responses, even in rural Missouri, because some Republican voters aren’t thrilled with what they’re seeing in Washington.
“So many proposals that Trump has made are really harmful in rural areas,’’ she said.
In any case, McCaskill said she planned to hold many town halls in the coming months all over the state. And she challenged fellow public officials in Jefferson City and Washington to follow her lead. Without naming names, she jabbed at those using Facebook Live or tele-town halls.
“If you don’t have the guts to stand up in front of people that you represent who disagree with you, you have no business holding the office,” McCaskill said.
Veiled jab at potential GOP rivals
One of McCaskill’s most talked-about potential opponents is new state Attorney General Josh Hawley. A number of prominent Republicans have co-signed a letter asking him to consider running for the Senate in 2018.
McCaskill observed Wednesday: “I think Josh Hawley is very interested in not being a politician. Well, the definition of a politician is somebody who starts running for another office before they’ve been in the office they’ve been elected to for 90 days. That’s a stone-cold politician.”
Hawley could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
McCaskill also said that many in both parties may be surprised by the campaign-finance numbers that she reports later this month. Another possible Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner of Ballwin, has released copies of her report, which show she has just under $2.8 million in the bank.
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