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McCaskill spars with GOP rivals over birth control vote, seeks civil Clay/Carnahan contest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2012 - As U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill sees it, she was siding with workers – not employers — with her vote last week against U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt’s proposal to allow employers to bar insurance coverage for certain medical procedures or services that the employer objects to, on ethical or religious grounds.

“I don’t think the boss should be able to decide what health care you get,’’ McCaskill said in an interview Saturday with the Beacon.

She contended that Blunt’s  proposal “affected everyone and everything.”  McCaskill said some employers might, for example, object to HIV testing or children’s vaccinations.

“And what about an employer who’s a Christian Scientist,’’ she said, “who believes in no medical care?”

Her three chief Republican rivals, however, see McCaskill’s vote as a blow against religious freedom.  Two – U.S. Rep. Todd Akin and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman – issued critical statements soon after the Senate vote.

The Beacon received no statement from St. Louis businessman John Brunner. But at a weekend GOP event in Springfield, a press account reported that Brunner said, “This is a despicable vote by Claire McCaskill."

Akin, R-Wildwood, is sponsoring a similar proposal in the U.S. House. “Sen. McCaskill’s continued support for Obamacare and her willingness to be an accomplice in this outrageous bureaucratic mandate betrays the public trust,” he said. “This is finally a display of the audacity federal bureaucracies will impose on us under the train-wreck of Obamacare.”

Steelman issued an equally strong statement blasting McCaskill’s vote.

"Once again, Sen. McCaskill has let down the people of Missouri and supported President Obama over the  values of Missouri,” Steelman said. “Sen. McCaskill's vote against Sen. Blunt's amendment shows how disconnected she is from Missouri values and from our nation's founding principles. Sen. McCaskill's inability to see the implications that ObamaCare has on our most basic rights is frightening.”

McCaskill, however, is ready to continue the debate. She said Saturday that Missouri voters deserve to know how Akin, Brunner and Steelman stand on the so-called “personhood” proposal declaring that life begins at fertilization (when an egg is fertilized by sperm) or conception (when a fertilized egg adheres to the wall of a woman’s uterus).

McCaskill opposes the proposal and noted that it was been rejected by voters in Colorado and Mississippi.

McCaskill talks to Carnahan and Clay

McCaskill also confirmed Saturday that she is concerned that U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, has filed against U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, in the 1st District now represented by Clay.

A new congressional redistricting map approved by the General Assembly last spring did away with Carnahan’s district because Missouri has lost a congressional district.

Carnahan’s residence was put in Clay’s district. Carnahan is hoping that the Missouri Supreme Court will toss out the map and order a new one. But in the meantime, he’s challenging Clay.

Clay already has snagged the endorsements of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

McCaskill declined to take sides Saturday but added that she talked last week with Clay and Carnahan.

“It would be great if we could have a primary that doesn’t give everyone a stomach ache,” she said.

McCaskill has a lot at stake. To win re-election this fall, she will have to have a strong turnout among African-American voters – and the largest bloc in the state resides in the St. Louis area, largely in the 1st District.

If Carnahan ousts Clay in the August primary, African-American voters angry over Clay’s loss might stay away from the polls in November – thus hurting McCaskill’s re-election chances.

A low black turnout could happen if President Barack Obama doesn't campaign much in the St. Louis area because many Democrats believe he has little chance of carrying Missouri in November.

Even before the Clay/Carnahan matchup emerged last week, Democratic interest in igniting excitement among African-American voters is considered one reason first lady Michelle Obama is making campaign stops Monday in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.