Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., speaks to supporters at the opening of her campaign field office Friday, May 18, 2018, in Ferguson, Mo. Less than six months before Election Day, McCaskill’s standing with Missouri’s African-American community is in question. And she’s being forced to prove that she’s not taking anyone for granted. McCaskill, a Democrat facing re-election in a state that has trended sharply Republican in recent years, knows she cannot afford to lose any support this fall _ especially not from a group of voters that was supposed to be among her most loyal. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)

'Don't be mad at Claire': McCaskill courts black voters

May 21, 2018 - 2:52 pm

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The African-American community's frustration with Sen. Claire McCaskill is real.

The perception that the Missouri Democrat has ignored black constituents haunts the corners of her campaign receptions in Ferguson, it looms near rallies in Kansas City, and it even sneaks into sermons from the church pulpit.

"Don't be mad at Claire," pastor Ronald Lindsay bellowed to his African-American congregation Sunday morning at the Concord Fortress of Hope Church where McCaskill sat in the front row. "We want to make sure we support her."

In Missouri, and across the nation, African-American voter enthusiasm will help determine whether Democrats can reclaim the House and Senate majorities from President Donald Trump's Republican Party in November's midterm elections. A dip in black voter turnout in 2016 allowed Trump to eke out victories in several key states, something that black leaders nationwide have lamented in recent months.

McCaskill's challenge is greater than most.

A Democrat facing re-election in a state that has trended sharply Republican in recent years, the Missouri Democrat can't afford to lose any support this fall — especially not from a group of voters that was supposed to be among her most loyal. Yet less than six months from Election Day, her standing with Missouri's African-American community is in question. And she's being forced to prove that she's not taking anyone for granted.

On Friday, McCaskill celebrated the opening of her first campaign office in Ferguson since the St. Louis suburb was shattered by violence in 2014 after police shot and killed Michael Brown. The next day, the 64-year-old senator met privately with African-American leaders in Kansas City. Hours later, she began a two-day tour of Missouri with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, one of just three African-American U.S. senators, who addressed hundreds of black parishioners at Concord Fortress of Hope on Sunday.

Booker recalled walking into the Senate in 2013 and being "the only black face in the room." He described an instant "kinship and connection" to McCaskill, a senator since 2006.

"You know you have not just a friend in Claire McCaskill, I have a soul sister," Booker told the congregation. "When she asks me to do something, I say, 'Yes, my sister.'"

Black voters' concern about the vulnerable Senate Democrat is likely linked to McCaskill's voter outreach over the last year: She held more than 50 town hall meetings primarily in rural areas dominated by supporters of President Donald Trump. As is the case nationwide, such areas are overwhelmingly white.

McCaskill's decision to prioritize rural outreach speaks to her difficult path ahead in one of the nation's premier Senate contests. To win in November, she must energize her traditional political base — including minorities and young voters — while attracting significant support from independents and moderate Republicans. Trump, who won Missouri by nearly 19 points, has already campaigned in the state three times. He has identified McCaskill's defeat as a priority.

The likely Republican nominee, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, has cast McCaskill as a hyper-partisan liberal in hopes of blunting her ability to win over voters on the right.

Hawley adviser Brad Todd downplays McCaskill's problems with African-Americans. "Her intractable problem," he says, "is that she has no basis to win over independents and Republicans."

Yet few black voters have sympathy for the political tightrope she must walk over the next six months. Those who feel neglected are easy to find — even at McCaskill's invitation-only events.

Dozens of African-Americans gathered for an office opening reception Friday in Ferguson, not far from where protesters clashed with police after Michael Brown's death four years ago. McCaskill, her office notes, was among the first elected officials on the scene. Her office also notes that she helped introduce legislation to address the militarization of police, an issue highlighted in Ferguson; and she earned a 94 percent score from the NAACP last year.

"The rumor is she doesn't do for the black community what she should. That's the rumor," Bonnie Robertson, a 73-year-old retired elementary school teacher, said as she stood in the corner of the Ferguson reception waiting for McCaskill to arrive.

Standing nearby, St. Louis city councilwoman Hazel Erby, another African-American, was blunt: "We have concerns."

"There are people who think maybe she isn't accessible to the black community," Erby said. "But we're optimistic. Sen. McCaskill has reached out to us."

When McCaskill arrived just minutes later, Erby ignored the concerns as she introduced the senator, reading from prepared remarks: "We have an opportunity to come together and do this right," Erby told the crowd. "Nobody outworks Claire McCaskill. She listens."

The next day, McCaskill met privately with black leaders in Kansas City and opened another campaign office in the urban center.

Concerns about her lack of attention to the black community were discussed, said Rodney Bland, a meeting participant and member of the civil rights group Freedom, Incorporated, describing the meeting as "a bridge-beginning conversation."

"Every election cycle has a first meeting," Bland told The Associated Press afterward. "And I think that was a very productive first meeting."

Bland and other black leaders who spoke about their community's concerns say they will vote for McCaskill this fall. They report being particularly motivated by Trump's presidency. Yet even a small dip in African-American enthusiasm at the polls would make an already hard re-election test even harder.

For her part, McCaskill is unapologetic when asked about the strained relationship. The concern, she said, is an unfortunate byproduct of working in Washington four days a week.

"I hate to disappoint people, but I can't be 15 places at once," she said in an interview. "But we're going to work really hard to show them — and make sure they know my record in terms of how I vote and what I fight for."

Addressing the African-American congregation on Sunday, she also asked for their prayers.

"You know, politics is rough. It's nasty," the senator said from the Fortress of Hope pulpit. "You know I've got a lot of haters out there. I've got a lot of haters."

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