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McCaskill goes after 'Big Oil,' as GOP rivals tangle over Steelman's big haul of backers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 5, 2012 - Avoiding the usual kickoff rallies to launch Missouri statewide campaigns, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is instead shifting into re-election mode this week by stopping outside gas stations and truck stops to blast away at “big oil” as part of her “Fairness Tour.”

Meanwhile, two of her Republican rivals – Sarah Steelman and John Brunner – are doing battle over the fairness of promoting big endorsements.

Steelman, a former state senator and former state treasurer, rolled out Wednesday the names of almost four dozen supporters from the General Assembly. Brunner sought to dismiss such endorsements by countering that Steelman used to dismiss them as well. To embrace them now, he contended, would be unfair.

Steelman’s action also appeared intended to show that, while some Republicans consider her a political outsider, she does have some insider support. 

McCaskill’s activities, meanwhile, seemed aimed at showing her as more of an outsider – even though she’s been inside the Senate for almost six years.

The senator held a news conference Wednesday in midtown St. Louis, across the street from a gas station charging just under $3.90 for a gallon of gas.

McCaskill (who had first gone inside the station to shake hands with the owners and workers) pointed out that she was co-sponsoring a bill “that would take some of the ‘goodies’ away from Big Oil,” notably $38 billion in tax breaks over 10 years.

“They’re the most profitable companies in the history of the planet,” McCaskill said, and don’t need any government help.

While acknowledging that eliminating the breaks might not curb oil prices, McCaskill said, “I do not think that what we give them now has resulted in any break at the pump. That is evidenced by the prices you see around Missouri and around the country.”

McCaskill defends record on energy

McCaskill's staff also distributed documents showing that the United States imported 25 percent less oil in 2011 than it did in 2005, while the number of active domestic oil and gas rigs has gone up more than 50 percent.

Start of update: During the news conference, McCaskill told reporters that some of the staff present were with her campaign, and some part of her official staff. But today, her campaign manager said that the senator was in error and that none of the staff at the news conference were with the campaign, and that the news conference was an official event. The sole campaign person present was in the car, campaign manager Adrienne Marsh said. End update

McCaskill’s point was that Democrats, including her, weren’t getting adequate credit for their efforts to increase domestic energy production. She also cited her support for the embattled Keystone oil pipeline from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico.

She was reacting, in part, to accusations from her three chief Republican rivals during a St. Louis forum last week that Democrats and McCaskill were to blame for rising gas prices.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee repeated that claim by asking why McCaskill was “going on a tour to prove you’re fighting for lower gas prices by pushing a proposal that – by your own account – won’t lower gas prices?”

The NRSC also jabbed at her tour’s other aim -- to promote the Democrats’ “Buffett Rule” that would impose an additional tax on people who claim incomes of over $1 million a year. The name comes from the observation of billionaire Warren Buffett, a Democratic ally, that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.

Republicans point to studies showing that most wealthy people do pay a higher percentage in taxes than do middle-income Americans. But McCaskill said her point was that, while the nation is suffering from hard economic times, that it’s only fair to ask the wealthy to pay a little more.

The Congressional Budget Office has determined that a higher tax on multi-millionaires would raise $50 billion over 10 years.

She noted that the wealthy now pay a much lower percentage than they did in the 1990s, when the economy was doing well and far more jobs were created.

The “very modest’’ increase in tax income, said McCaskill, would go toward “maintaining our roads and bridges, to making sure that some college students can still get Pell Grants, and frankly, for reducing our deficit and long-term debt.”

The Ryan budget embraced by Republicans, she continued, “gives an average of $250,000 in additional tax breaks" to the wealthy. She said that was "not the economic fairness I think most Missourians are looking for.”

Blasts Super PACs as 'cesspools'

McCaskill’s tour comes as she is continuing a TV ad campaign that responds to a wave of attack ads also airing in the state. Those ads have come primarily from wealthy outside groups, notably the so-called Super PACs that don't have to identify their donors. The senator called the situation "a cesspool" unfair to candidates and the public.

While observing that she feels “out here by my lonesome, mostly,’’ McCaskill is seeking high-profile Democratic help, although at the moment in a low-profile way. Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, for example, was in town Tuesday night for a private fundraising event for McCaskill.

The senator reaffirmed that she has asked President Barack Obama to come to Missouri to help her raise money, but she indicated that so far he has not indicated he will do so. McCaskill said that she didn't expect to get as much national Democratic Party help as she did in 2006, because so many U.S. Senate Democrats need help this fall.

In fact, while McCaskill is traveling across the state by car, she said she plans to be busy on her cell phone raising campaign money between her gas station stops. A campaign staff member was accompanying her, for that reason.

Although she and her husband, Joseph Shepard, are wealthy, McCaskill said dryly that the idea of infusing family money into her re-election campaign “would be a hard sell at my house."

GOP sparring has regional roots

Meanwhile, GOP rivals Steelman and Brunner are engaging in some intense jockeying over Steelman’s list of 47 state legislators who have endorsed her. Virtually all were outstate lawmakers. (The local exceptions included state Reps. Mike Leara of St. Louis and Ann Zerr of St. Charles.)

The support list may have been the work of state House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, who is now Steelman's campaign chairman.

Brunner resurrected statements that Steelman had made in 2004 and 2008 disparaging political endorsements. 

Asserted Brunner in a biting jab: "It is now blatantly apparent that Sarah Steelman will do or say anything to try to win this election, but Missourians are too smart to fall for what is just another politically expedient move from just another opportunistic career politician. Either she thinks very little of the politicians whom she previously mocked as 'establishment,' or she simply wasn't honest in the first place."

But arguably the stronger message delivered by Steelman’s latest list is that outstate lawmakers appear to be gravitating to the only well-known outstate Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Steelman is from Rolla.

Brunner, a wealthy businessman, hails from suburban St. Louis, as does U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood. Some strategists have theorized that Steelman's best hope in the primary is a split in the St. Louis area vote between her two rivals.

The regional divide could become a bigger issue among Missouri Republicans in the August primary than oil and gas prices, since all three hold the same views on energy.

Which may explain why Brunner and Akin also have been traveling outstate -- although as yet, they’re not holding news conferences outside gas stations.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.