COLUMBIA, Mo. — Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) put her bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Missouri here to good use. Along with stints in the Missouri state and Jackson County legislatures, she's won two statewide races for auditor, lost a gubernatorial race, won her Senate seat in 2006 and is now running for re-election.
And as the Democratic Party convened its national convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday to renominate President Barack Obama, she quite literally went back to school in the Show Me State, kicking off a series of events at local universities, starting with Mizzou, her alma mater.
"This is really weird for me. I spent a lot of time in this building ... a long, long time ago," she said. McCaskill received her undergraduate degree in 1975 and her J.D. from the university's law school in 1978.
At an event with approximately 60 students in the school's Middlebush Building, where several social science departments are housed, McCaskill shared some of the political lessons she has learned along the way. She said she was long determined to become the state's first female governor. "That didn't work out," she said. "I learned a lot from that loss."
The race she was referring to, her 2004 loss to Matt Blunt (R), the son of Sen. Roy Blunt (R), provided a snapshot of partisan dynamics in Missouri. McCaskill, who had defeated the incumbent governor, Democrat Bob Holden, in a rough primary, ran up big victory margins in metro Kansas City and St. Louis, but lost widely out-state, en route to a 51-48 defeat by Blunt.
Two years later, McCaskill took on Sen. Jim Talent. In a wave election for Democrats, she carried Kansas City and St. Louis big again but limited her losses in the other parts of the state and edged Talent out, 50-47.
"You're the first stop of many stops this week," she told the students, and a few members of the press, in Room 309 of Middlebush, a medium-sized lecture hall. "We need you to be aggressive advocates," she added, encouraging students to bring the same kind of dedication to heading to the polls as do senior citizens. "You guys really have to start muscling up here," she said, noting that about 300,000 Missouri college students are either the recipients of Pell Grants or have federally backed loans. "Vote," she said in answer to one student's question as to how they could help her campaign. She also pointed out that a person from the coordinating campaign was there to sign up anyone interested in volunteering. "If you're over 21, we specialize in warm beer and cold pizza," she said.
The issue of the federal government's role in education policy is one the McCaskill campaign is hoping has some currency. The Senator's vote this summer to keep federally backed student loans at a 3.4 percent interest rate is noted at each stop. Here at Mizzou, students seemed interested in that issue but spent most of the session with McCaskill peppering her with more biographical questions, particularly how she got interested in politics.
"My parents taught me to say 'trick or treat and vote for JFK!' at seven years old," she said. Her father was a state insurance commissioner and her mother was a Columbia City councilwoman. In 1978, her mother faced off with Leroy Blunt, Roy Blunt's father, for a Missouri House seat. Blunt won that contest.
McCaskill is running for re-election this year against Rep. Todd Akin (R), a race the politically vulnerable Senator was widely expected to lose until her opponent made controversial comments about rape and abortion.
National Republicans have since vowed not to spend a dime in the Missouri Senate race unless Akin withdraws, and recent polling shows McCaskill competitive with Akin, where previously she had trailed.
This week McCaskill will spend much of her time on campuses. After leaving Columbia, she headed down the road to Westminster College in Fulton, site of Winston Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech. She was able to touch on her roots there, too.
"My mother was a Woodsie," she said, referring to William Woods University, a sister school to Westminster. Today, she swings by Truman State University in Kirksville, in the north-central part of the state, and Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, which is located about midway between Kansas City and Omaha, Neb.
And as she wrapped up with her Mizzou audience, she threw the football crazed crowd a bone. This weekend, Missouri makes its debut in the reconfigured SEC against Georgia. "I will be at the game Saturday, as we show the SEC we belong!" she said.