In late January, a few days before the Iowa caucuses launched the Presidential nominating season, a Super PAC funded by a wealthy Republican named Joe Ricketts paid more than half a million dollars to air a TV spot aimed at a Democratic candidate. The ad, at least on the face of it, attacked Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as being “too liberal” for Iowa voters. Sanders was castigated for promising to raise taxes on the wealthy and have the government pay for health care and higher education.
Upon hearing of the ad, Senator Claire McCaskilll, who was supporting Hillary Clinton for the nomination, tweeted to her followers: “I see you Joe Ricketts. And I know exactly what you’re up to. #ToddAkin Don’t fall for it Iowa Dems.”
The New York Times opined, “The strategy of attacking Mr. Sanders seems reminiscent of how Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Democrat, ran ads in her 2012 re-election bid targeting Todd Akin, a conservative and the opponent she wanted to face because he seemed less electable in a general election.”
At the time of that 2012 election, Claire McCaskill and her campaign were circumspect about the motive behind taking out ads during the Republican primary accusing Akin of being too conservative for Missouri, but she lays it all out in her very readable and revealing recent book, Plenty Ladylike: a Memoir, which was co-written with longtime Missouri political reporter Terry Ganey.
The title of the book was unintentionally supplied by Todd Akin. The ultra-conservative Tea Party founder observed during the course of the 2012 election that McCaskill seemed to have grown “less ladylike” over the years of campaigning.
How McCaskill dealt with the perceived need to remain passably “ladylike” while mired in the traditionally macho sport of politics is an overriding theme of the book, which might be used as a primer for younger women on the struggles and triumphs of 60-something female politicians.
McCaskill was born in 1953 and grew up in small-town Missouri, with middle-class parents active in local politics and who, she writes, did “an amazing job of protecting me from a very dangerous point of view: that women should not be ambitious.” Young Claire was independent and aggressive, indeed, she says, “driven.” She was fiercely competitive matters large and not-so-large. When cut from the cheerleading squad in high school, she decided to launch a “comeback” by becoming the homecoming queen.
Previously, no one had actually campaigned for the position. The homecoming queen was elected by the football players, and was typically the quarterback’s girlfriend. Claire befriended linemen and second and third stringers, and she won. She writes, “I wanted others to believe I won because I was popular; in fact I had carried out an effective political operation by identifying a constituency and working hard to gain its support.” She sees that as one key to her success in later years in winning elections as a moderate Democrat in increasingly conservative Missouri.
The homecoming queen was elected by the football players, and was typically the quarterback’s girlfriend. Claire befriended linemen and second and third stringers, and she won. She writes, “I wanted others to believe I won because I was popular; in fact I had carried out an effective political operation by identifying a constituency and working hard to gain its support.”
In 1974, already dreaming of one day being governor of Missouri, she spent a term as a college intern at the state legislature in Jefferson City. She saw how the few women in the General Assembly were marginalized. And the young female interns were thought of as fair game for male legislators. One day, she “ended up in the elevator with two older male legislators and one of their assistants.”
“They kept asking if I liked ‘to party’ and tried to get me to come to one of their offices for some drinks. I felt trapped. For the rest of the internship, I took the stairs.” The sexual harassment of female interns went on routinely at the state house for 40 more years—in 2015, two state legislators were forced to resign after dozens of young women complained of sexual harassment when they served as interns.
McCaskill worked her way through college and law school at the University of Missouri by waiting tables. After graduation, she went to work for the state of Missouri in Kansas City, first as a legal researcher, then as a prosecutor. She was the only woman in the prosecutor’s office.
In 1982 she ran for the state legislature.
“People told me to knock on doors,” she recalls.
She did, and one of the doors was opened by a man “in his upper middle years.” After she had said she was running for the state legislature, he looked her over slowly and said, “You’re too young. Your hair is too long. You’re a girl. No way are you tough enough for politics. Those politicians will eat you alive. Go find yourself a husband.”
Then he slammed the door in her face.
She kept knocking on doors—11,432 of them. She won.
Upon re-entering the State House, she discovered that sexism had not abated since her days as an intern. She asked the powerful speaker of the house for help on a bill she favored, and he asked, “Well, did you bring along your kneepads?”
“I knew he was joking,” she says. “The only problem was that he didn’t realize it was an offensive joke.”
A male friend from those days recalls that a group of male legislators “started rumors and made up stories” about women in the Legislature. “These guys would always joke that Claire was sleeping with everybody. They had no basis for any of it. Any woman who was successful, they’d accuse of having slept with somebody.”
McCaskill recalls, “Sometimes I ignored it, sometimes I responded, sometimes I cried and sometimes I tried to turn it into a joke. I had to figure out how to remain friends and collegial so I could be a successful legislator, but I also had to learn how to avoid being marginalized.” At least once, she lost her temper with a drunk male colleague who kept making suggestive remarks. Finally, she shouted, “if you don’t shut your mouth, I’m going to knock your head off.” He shut his mouth.
She was clearly a rising star in the Democratic party, known for her clever political maneuvers and her tenacity. “I love a good fight,” she told a Kansas City Star reporter at the time. “That will either help me or be my downfall as a legislator. I’m headstrong and a bit independent and the type of politician who will either go a long way or crash and burn.” A longtime observer of Missouri politics was asked if Claire McCaskill could be ruthless, and he said, “Sometimes, but always with a sense of fun.”
At least once, she lost her temper with a drunk male colleague who kept making suggestive remarks. Finally, she shouted, “if you don’t shut your mouth, I’m going to knock your head off.” He shut his mouth.
The memoir, in a breezy style, details McCaskill’s political rise. She gives due space to her family—two husbands, three children—and goes into some detail about the mysterious death of her first husband, but the book is essentially about the serious game of politics, and how Claire McCaskill has played it.
In 1998, McCaskill won the powerful state office of auditor. She lost a close race for governor in 2004. During that latter campaign, a focus group decided that the animal that best represented her was a cobra, and one member of the group compared her to Cruella de Vil. She lost in rural areas, and emerged with a lesson for future campaigns: “It was not about driving back and forth from St. Louis to Kansas City … I could not win by simply campaigning to my base; I had to cut into margins in the red parts of the state.” She took that advice in 2006, when she ran for election to the United States Senate. She ran ads showing her as a child in rural Missouri, fishing with her father. Her mother appeared on television, saying her daughter had grown up in a traditional family with traditional values. She won.
Then came the 2012 re-election campaign, with the Citizens United v. FEC decision having opened the door for millions of dollars for conservative candidates from, among others, the Koch brothers.
The 2012 election inspired the best section of the memoir, funny and insightful.
McCaskill was unopposed in the Democratic primary, but there were three people vying for the Republican nomination. The most conservative—and the least skilled at public pronouncements, as it turned out—was Congressional Representative Todd Akin. He once announced on the House floor that it was “common practice” for doctors to practice abortions on women “who were not actually pregnant.” He had called for America to pull out of the United Nations and claimed that President Obama was a “commie.”
This was the man McCaskill wanted to run against. But he was ranked third out of three in polling of Republicans in Missouri. She decided to give him a boost during the campaigning period for the Republican primary. She writes:
“Using the guidance of my campaign staff and consultants, we came up with an idea for a ‘dog whistle’ ad, a message that was pitched in such a way that it would only be heard by a certain group of people. I told my team we needed to put Akin’s uber-conservative bona fides in an ad—and then, using reverse psychology, tell voters not to vote for him. And we needed to run the hell out of that ad.”
There were actually two ads quoting Akin himself as saying he was “too conservative” for Missouri. The ads, McCaskill writes, “made it look as though I was trying to disqualify him, though, as you know, when you call someone too conservative in a Republican primary, that’s giving him or her a badge of honor. At the end of the ad, my voice was heard saying, ‘I’m Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.'”
She found herself rooting for Akin to an unreasonable degree. She recalls, “Never before had I been so committed to another’s race.” At one point, Akin was rising in the polls when his campaign took down an effective ad featuring an endorsement by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. They replaced it with an ad featuring Akin talking bombastically about “flames of freedom.” McCaskill let it be known in Republican circles that McCaskill’s pollsters said the ad was a loser. The Huckabee ad went back up.
Akin won with a comfortable lead. At the beginning of the general election campaign, polls showed McCaskill as the underdog, but she figured she could change that by using “his own words to show he was against Social Security, Medicare and students loans.”
“Akin said so many controversial things that we began calling him ‘the gift that keeps on giving.’ Little did we know what he would say next.”
McCaskill was behind in the polls when one Sunday morning, on a St. Louis talk show, Akins defended his position against abortion even in the case of rape by uttering the words, in an authoritative air, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
That did it.
On election day, Claire McCaskill won by a landslide. She even carried conservative rural Missouri.
When Claire MCaskill entered the U.S. Senate in 2006, she was one of a record number of 16 senators who were women. After the 2012 election, she was one of 20. Among other signs of the growing number of women in the U.S. Senate, the women’s bathroom near the Senate floor, which had only two stalls was getting increasingly crowded. After a long wait with several other female senators to use one of the stalls, McCaskill tweeted her followers that a “power meeting” of women senators was being held in a Senate bathroom.
She added, “Gonna need another bathroom.”