Down to the wire: Midwest Democrat McCaskill fights to stem Trump tide
Days before deeply polarizing US midterm elections, Democrat Claire McCaskill is tearing through Missouri, trying to entice Republican voters with her middle-of-the-road politics -- even as rabble-rouser-in-chief Donald Trump whips up support for her rival.
As a two-term Democratic centrist in an increasingly Republican-leaning Midwestern state, McCaskill has beaten the odds before.
But she faces a herculean task Tuesday, with President Trump campaigning for her challenger Josh Hawley twice in the race's final five days seeking to stop McCaskill's Senate re-election bid cold.
During a campaign event in St. Louis she insisted the president's Missouri trips showed Hawley's desperation, but she avoided bashing Trump himself.
"I don't get up every day trying to figure out how to fight the president," McCaskill, 65, told AFP at the gathering hours before Trump rallied in Columbia.
"This is about standing up to the president when I think he's wrong, like on tariffs which are brutalizing the agriculture industry in our state, (and) it's about working with him, like on the opioids bill" to expand drug abuse prevention and treatment programs.
McCaskill's task is two-fold in a state that chose Trump by nearly 20 points in 2016: get out the vote in deep blue territory like St. Louis -- where rallying African-American support is critical -- and draw enough support in conservative rural Missouri to put her over the top
On Thursday she campaigned in St. Louis before heading northwest to O'Fallon, a town in the Republican-held second congressional district, to highlight her efforts to expand healthcare access, protect coverage for pre-existing conditions and improve care for veterans.
Her challenge reflects the opposition Democrats' across much of the Midwest, where several states including Democratic strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin voted twice for Barack Obama, but flipped for Trump in 2016.
"We gotta hunker down here these last few days," McCaskill -- who balances a folksy demeanor with the razor-sharp language of a former prosecutor -- told a crowd of 100 people.
"We'll do some hugging before this is over."
And perhaps some hand-wringing. McCaskill is fighting for her political life, neck and neck in polls with Hawley, the state's pro-Trump attorney general who is 27 years her junior.
Trump calls Hawley a rising Republican "star," but McCaskill insists he would only serve as a rubber stamp for the president's agenda.
For Democrats, Missouri is an absolute: lose the state, and efforts to put a check on Trump in the Senate, where Republicans who hold a 51-49 edge, will evaporate.
- 'Push and pull' -
Observers acknowledge Missouri is shifting steadily into Republican territory.
The Show Me State has long embraced the labor movement traditionally aligned with Democrats, and unions remain influential
But Missourians are largely socially conservative, which leads to a "push and pull," explained Mary Elizabeth Coleman, a Republican candidate for state representative.
As the national Democratic Party "got more and more progressive... it's been harder for those in the Midwest to follow along with them," Coleman said while doorknocking in Arnold, in the same Republican district as O'Fallon.
Even as many voters across the country, particularly women, voice frustration with Trump, Coleman said he remains popular in her district.
McCaskill's race is a toss-up, but "I think it's going to break late -- and conservative," Coleman added.
Not if more people like Jason Shoemaker vote. The 40-year-old independent supported Trump in 2016, but said he backs McCaskill for Senate.
Shoemaker, who works for coal giant Peabody Energy, has grown "disheartened with politics" because of the mudslinging often fueled by Trump's caustic tweets.
That being said, he appreciates the economy's upward trajectory, an accomplishment Republicans are selling heavily this year.
"I don't like half the stuff that comes out of the man's mouth," Shoemaker said of Trump, "but at the same time my 401-K (retirement plan) is looking great."
- Campaign blitz -
As candidates nationwide make their closing arguments, it is virtually impossible for voters to ignore Trump, who acknowledges the election is a referendum on his presidency.
Trump has thrust Missouri into the spotlight, as his multi-state final campaign blitz ends in Cape Girardeau, Missouri on election eve.
Thursday in Columbia he urged Missouri to "retire far-left Democrat" McCaskill.
Hawley joined Trump on stage, and quickly linked her to failed presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
"Claire McCaskill has spent her lifetime in politics just like Hillary," Hawley said.
She "wanted us to call Hillary Clinton Madam President. On November 6, we're going to call Claire McCaskill 'fired,'" he said. The crowd roared.
McCaskill meanwhile is hugging it out, one voter at a time.
"It's hard," she said of her mission. Getting Democrats enthusiastic is key, she said, "but you also have to have the trust of voters who don't view their decision through a political lens."
Kit Jenkins is a supporter, but she's nervous. The 66-year-old retired professor is urging Democrats to vote to rein in Trump, and hopes Republicans do the same.
"This is a fight," Jenkins said of McCaskill's re-election effort.
"I'm not here saying hey, we nailed it," she added. "I'm here saying, God damn it I'm giving you everything I have."
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