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McCaskill takes her town hall tour to once-blue, now-red northeast Missouri

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill makes a point during a town hall meeting on August 23, 2017, in Bowling Green.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill makes a point during a town hall meeting on August 23, 2017, in Bowling Green.

BOWLING GREEN -- U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s August recess town hall tour stopped in northeast Missouri on Wednesday, a historically Democratic stronghold that went heavily for Republican President Donald Trump last November.

It’s part of a rural tour of sorts that McCaskill said is vital for Democrats like her to undertake — especially as she gears up for a potentially tough re-election battle next year.

During a roughly hour-long question-and-answer session at the Pike County Courthouse in Bowling Green, McCaskill answered questions on changing the Affordable Care Act, whether to impose more restrictions on immigration and even whether the Fox News Channel was bad for the country.

She also emphasized that Congress is following through some bipartisan efforts, including providing assistance to American soldiers who were subjectedto mustard gas tests. She also noted that Republicans and Democrats are seeking to lower the costs of hearing aids for consumers.

“We’re going to have to figure out a way to work together, Democrats and Republicans, to find solutions,” McCaskill said. “Which means we have to come out of the edges and come closer to the middle. We’ve got to find that middle ground, that sweet spot of compromise where nobody’s completely happy — but we’re making progress.”

McCaskill criticized a failed GOP effort to make broad changes to the Affordable Care Act, contending that Republicans didn’t seek input from Democrats. She said it was a mistake for her party to pass the health care law in 2010 on a party-line vote.

“They made the mistake we made, but much worse — they just went in a backroom to write it,” she said. “We have an opportunity now, for the first time. We have an opportunity to pull Democrats and Republicans together to try and repair what we have.”

Some audience members, like Janice Robinson, wanted federal officials like McCaskill to help fight poverty, which is widespread in rural Missouri. Pike County’s median household income, for instance, is $10,000 lower than the national average, according the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We have a lot of people who are middle income who are falling into poverty,” Robinson said. “They just cannot get ahead. The wages are not what they should be. The benefits are not there. And we hear a lot about the government assistance programs? These people would not be able to get by with some kind of assistance.”

Besides improving roads and schools, McCaskill said make broadband internet more widely available in rural Missouri could be a major economic driver. “It’s not something that we can say, ‘Oh, it would be nice if we had it,’” she said.

Trump country

Bowling Green Mayor Donald Hunter introduces McCaskill at Wednesday's town hall meeting at the Pike County Court House.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Bowling Green Mayor Donald Hunter introduces McCaskill at Wednesday's town hall meeting at the Pike County Court House.

McCaskill received a largely friendly reception from the crowd, which featured people with stickers featuring the Pike County Democratic Party logo. Pike County voters traditionally favored Democrats like McCaskill, as did most of northeast Missouri.

But that changed in a big way last year, when more than 70 percent of Pike County voters backed Trump. Even Democratic stalwarts like Bowling Green Mayor Donald Hunter were drawn to Trump.

“When I came to town in 1959, there were two Republicans in the county. One of them didn’t want to talk about it, the other one didn’t want to be seen,” Hunter said. “And now, everybody all at once wants to be a Republican. Possibly Ms. Clinton turned us all into Republicans.”

McCaskill said it “bugs” her that some of her Democratic colleagues “want to look down their noses” at people who voted for Trump.

“That really burns me. Because in Missouri, a whole lot of people who voted for Donald Trump wanted disruption. They wanted change,” McCaskill said. “They hear every four years, ‘Oh change is going to happen, change is going to happen.’ And things hadn’t changed that much for them. They’re still worried about their economic security  They are still worried about whether they can send their kids to college.

“So, along came a candidate who really did sound different than everyone else,” she continued. “And I think that was very attractive to people who wanted change like ‘OK, let’s try somebody who’s going to disrupt.’”

McCaskill, who is expected to face a tough re-election fight next year, has spent most her August recess holding town halls in places that Trump did well. She said that’s not an accident.

“My party has been arrogant at times about listening and learning from people that live outside of reliably blue areas,” she said. “I think I have an obligation to show up and show respect.”

During her successful 2006 and 2012 Senate bids, McCaskill got either 40 percent of the vote or higher in scores of rural counties around Missouri. That was an improvement from her failed 2004 bid for governor, where she got around 30 percent of the vote in those same areas.

“I hear my mom’s voice in my head that you can’t be a good senator for the state if you don’t travel to every part of the state,” McCaskill said. “And even though this town hall tour has been exhausting, it has been exhilarating because I’ve been reminded how great people are all over the state.”

McCaskill said she’ll hold events in St. Louis and Kansas City later this year.

Follow Jason on Twitter:@jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.