The future of Sen. Claire McCaskill's Senate career could rest with the state's black voters — and McCaskill is struggling to overcome the perception that she's taking their support for granted.
Leading black politicians in Missouri have held a series of private meetings in recent weeks with McCaskill. Among those urging her to get more involved are the state's two veteran black congressional representatives and state Rep. Bruce Franks, the Ferguson protester-turned-politician who admonished McCaskill earlier this year for not doing enough outreach in black communities.
McCaskill won 94 percent of the black vote in Missouri in 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ticket, seeking re-election as the nation's first black president.
This year, in what is expected to be one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country, McCaskill will need the enthusiastic support of minorities from her base in the state's urban centers, Kansas City and St Louis, in order to secure a third term.
But as a Democrat running for re-election in a state Republican President Donald Trump won by nearly 19 points, McCaskill also must win over some Republican and independent voters in Missouri’s conservative rural counties.
It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that Reps. Emanuel Cleaver and William Lacy Clay, as well as Franks, say they trust McCaskill — a savvy and formidable campaigner — to undertake.
But they want to make sure minority voters don’t feel forgotten as she works to cast herself as a centrist.
McCaskill declined to comment for this story. Meira Bernstein, McCaskill’s campaign spokeswoman, said she had nothing to add to a statement she gave to The Star in March for a previous story: “Claire has a long record — dating back to her time as a prosecutor, and continuing through her work as senator — of standing with and fighting for Missouri's African American community. Nothing has, or ever will, change that commitment.”
Clay had asked for the meeting with McCaskill and Cleaver, which took place on April 24. Cleaver, who also attended, said its purpose was to “steer her in the direction” to maximize black turnout in November.
“We’ve got to have an overzealous voter turnout in the black and brown communities of Missouri for her,” Cleaver said.
The former Kansas City mayor said he prefaced his comments to McCaskill by reiterating his strong support for her campaign.
Then Cleaver told her about a March 30 urban summit meeting he attended at a church in Kansas City, where he was grilled about the Missouri Senate race by 50 to 60 leaders from the area’s minority communities.
“’Are you going to support Claire McCaskill?’ That was the first question,” he said.
“It’s a tough group,” Cleaver said. “Even though they’re my friends, they weren’t happy with my constant statement: ‘I’m supporting her, I’m supporting her.’”
They asked him why, Cleaver said. “Has she helped you?” he said they asked. “Why should we vote for her, we haven’t seen her.”
By relating the story to McCaskill, Cleaver said, he hoped to encourage her “to reach out and touch people” in Missouri’s minority communities.
All Democratic candidates — not just McCaskill — need to speak more directly to issues that concern minority communities, said Clay, who represents St. Louis. Clay has been friendly with McCaskill for 30 years.
“How do we attack economic disparity and what is your record on that?” Clay said in an interview. "How do you help them with student loan debt? How do you help them become homeowners, and build that family wealth, which is only 15 percent of white family wealth? They want to hear that."
Clay said McCaskill listened.
“She has been responsive to us and to the concerns that have been raised about her service,” he said.
But Clay couldn’t say whether their discussion had actually changed anything specific about how McCaskill ran her campaign.
“That’s on Claire,” Clay said. “She’s got to figure that out. I can’t talk for what they do. I’m not intimately involved. Hopefully she will.”
Asked if McCaskill took his and Clay’s advice well, Cleaver said: “You know, it’s hard for people to take criticism. Nobody likes it. I haven’t found it to be particularly pleasant, even from my children, my wife. … I don’t think she was like, ‘Oh yeah, come on tell me some other things I did to mess up.' But you know, she accepted it.”
McCaskill also met in early April with Franks, a prominent Ferguson activist who now serves as a state legislator from St. Louis. The city of Ferguson, Mo., became an epicenter for protests in 2014 after a while police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
At a town hall Franks hosted on February 17, he had called on McCaskill to “show up” and earn the support of minority voters in her state. “I’m going to vote for Claire, but Claire is going to have to bring her ass to St. Louis,” Franks said to applause.
In response to Franks' comments, McCaskill had asked African American elected officials in Kansas City and St. Louis to sign a letter pushing back on the idea that her campaign hadn’t done enough to reach out to black voters. None did.
At the April meeting, a little more than a week after the Kansas City Star published an article about the letter on March 28, Franks said he spoke with McCaskill at a weekend event for Missouri Democrats in Springfield, Mo.
"Things are improving. I was glad to get to sit down with the senator,” Franks told The Star.
He said he told McCaskill he understands she works in Washington, “but we need to see you” in minority communities.
McCaskill told Franks about new offices she plans to open, and he told her about the inequalities he’s seeing in the city and ways his constituents could use federal help.
Then on April 14, the two got to talk again when McCaskill joined Franks and Democratic state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed on a tour of housing projects in St. Louis that had been infested by mice.
“She came in there and talked about federal funding and some real fixes for the community rather than some band aids,” Franks said.
One of the Republicans running to unseat McCaskill this year, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, had announced on April 4 that his office would investigate conditions at the same projects.
Cleaver believes McCaskill has to generate the same kind of enthusiasm that drove black voters to the polls in Alabama to elect Democrat Doug Jones late last year.
“The African American women turned out for the Alabama Senate race higher than they did for Barack Obama,” he pointed out.
In 2012, 95 percent of black women in Alabama voted for Obama, making up 17 percent of total votes cast, according to exit polls. In 2017, 98 percent of black women voted for Jones, and made up 18 percent of the votes.
Overall, black voters made up nearly 30 percent of the vote in Alabama, a rate more in line with presidential election years than a special off-year election.
One of the potential disadvantages for McCaskill is that while black voter turnout rates tend to be higher in Missouri than the nation as a whole, they tend to drop dramatically in non-presidential years.
Black voter turnout in Missouri when McCaskill ran in 2012 was about 67 percent, according to an analysis by William Frey, a demographer with Washington's Brookings Institution. Obama did not win the state’s electoral votes either in 2008 or 2012, but McCaskill did pull out an underdog re-election victory in 2012 against then-GOP Rep. Todd Akin.
In 2016, another presidential year, black voters turned out at a rate of about 66 percent in Missouri, far higher than the national average of 59.4 percent.
But in midterm election years 2010 and 2014, black turnout in Missouri fell to 47.6 percent and 37.4 percent, respectively.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt’s ability to take 9 percent of the state’s black vote in 2016 might have helped him edge Democrat Jason Kander, whose percentage of Missouri's black vote was 90, slightly less than McCaskill’s 94 percent in 2012.
Blunt won re-election by less than 3 percentage points.
Franks said he tells people all the time that although they might hear him critique McCaskill, he's still supports her and urges them to do the same.
"Hawley is not an option. Period," he said.