Senate Candidates Who Stayed Home
Former Convention Speakers Opt Out
WARRENSBURG, Mo. – Call it the unconventional club. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) never served together. She was swept into office in 2006 by the same Democratic wave that swept him out. But the two find themselves sharing a select fraternity this summer as candidates running in tight races who stayed home to campaign, skipping altogether the quadrennial gatherings of the partisan faithful at which they have previously spoken.
Rather than attend the GOP gathering in Tampa, Fla., or the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Allen and McCaskill eschewed the national scene to travel in their states, seeking out audiences in smaller towns and faraway places.
Neither candidate seems to have any regrets about the decision to stay home, despite the occasional logistical snafu.
For McCaskill, her vaunted and enormous campaign RV backed into a red Toyota Corolla at Westminster College, giving it a little more than a love tap and little less than a bumper car hit. It created a brief little scene in the small town of Fulton, Mo., with a Westminster security guard loudly cursing as the bumper-on-bumper crunch sounded out.
And Allen was scheduled to appear in Richmond, Va., with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), on the day after the Republican convention, providing him with a big visibility bump and a plum spot with the newly minted presidential ticket. But at the last minute, Romney diverted to New Orleans to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac. Ryan still showed.
If nothing else, the candidates could talk about how much more they preferred their home states to the convention cities.
“I’m here. I’m here with Virginians,” Allen said in Leesburg.
“I’m going to be moving around to various watch parties in St. Louis. There’s a number of them that are on the schedule. So I’m gonna hop around and try to see as many Missouri Obama supporters in St. Louis as I can this evening,” McCaskill said on Thursday, the day of Obama’s Charlotte speech.
McCaskill also stated the obvious, that regardless of where she, or Allen for that matter, decided to spend time during the convention, the opposition wasn’t going to exactly give out a free pass.
“By the way, if I were in Charlotte, the Republicans would say, ‘She doesn’t care about Missouri,'” McCaskill said earlier in the week.
Route 50 is often described as the loneliest road in America, and with the media attention focused on Charlotte, it was an apt description of McCaskill’s travels last week. Turn south off the highway about an hour outside Kansas City, drive another couple of miles, and you arrive in Warrensburg, home of the University of Central Missouri “Mules and Jennies” and host of one of McCaskill’s “On Our Campus, On Our Side” events.
After giving her stump speech to the crowd of about 70 – which focused on her differences with her opponent, GOP Rep. Todd Akin, on support for financial aid – many of the questions centered on the political arena, particularly how difficult it can be to forge consensus.
“There’s a lot of things about it that suck, to use a technical term,” she said, getting a laugh out of the sympathetic crowd before decrying polarization in the parties. “And what happens to those in the middle? It gets very lonely,” she said somewhat wistfully.
Allen sought out venues such as a veterans’ lunch in Abingdon, Va., the town where he began his law career by clerking for U.S. District Court Judge Glen Williams. “This is where I got my start,” he said there.
He also did a tour of main street Marion, where he walked around with town officials and a small group of supporters and passed out campaign fliers.
“You have the best looking car in Virginia,” he shouted out to a man driving a Chevrolet sedan covered with Allen and other pro-Republican stickers.
“This part of Virginia, this region, is really crucial,” Allen said.
Indeed, he will need southern Virginia’s votes if he hopes to overcome a strong challenge from former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) in November.
That sort of sentiment was echoed by McCaskill as she sought to fire up students to support her.
“I think part of it is paying attention, showing them I care. That’s why we’re going to so many college campuses this week. And we’re going to keep doing it. I mean, we have, we’re going to have, a robust presence on college campuses,” she said.
Her twice-a-day events at Missouri’s colleges last week typically featured a coordinated campaign worker or regional field director on hand to sign up volunteers. “If you’re over 21, we specialize in warm beer and cold pizza,” she said at Westminster College.
Allen and McCaskill are similar in many respects. They come from the same generation of political leaders – Allen is 60, McCaskill 59. They both received bachelor’s and law degrees from their state’s flagship public university. The success of their careers has, in part, come from paying their dues and working their way up from the state legislature to statewide and federal office.
And both have, in the past, been considered rising stars in their national parties. As one of Obama’s earlier supporters in his bid for the presidency, McCaskill landed a prime speaking slot at the 2008 Denver convention.
When Allen spoke at the 2004 New York City convention that renominated President George W. Bush, he was already being mentioned as a strong contender for the 2008 GOP presidential ticket. At the time, his pedigree was right: He won election to the Senate in 2000 after a high-profile term as Virginia’s governor from 1994 to 1998.
For McCaskill, 2012 marks the fifth time she will be on a statewide ballot, having won twice as state auditor and once as Senator and having lost a gubernatorial race.
For Allen, this year is his fourth running statewide; his last race ended in the loss of the Senate seat he is now trying to reclaim.
Each politician’s sole statewide loss was difficult to stomach.
In 2004, McCaskill lost 51 percent to 48 percent to Republican Matt Blunt, falling short of her longtime goal of being elected Missouri’s first female governor. “I learned a lot from that loss,” she told students Tuesday at her alma mater, the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Two years later, she put together the pieces to win her Senate seat, becoming the first woman elected to the Senate from Missouri.
While McCaskill was celebrating the night of Nov. 7, 2006, Allen lost 50 percent to 49 percent to Democrat Jim Webb in a race defined in part by their differences on the war in Iraq but also by a painful episode in which Allen referred to an Indian-American Webb aide as “macaca” and welcomed him “to America, and the real world of Virginia” at a campaign event the aide captured on videotape.
It’s been six years since Allen’s loss and he obviously hopes he can find a way to write another, more positive chapter for his political biography, even if his dreams of the presidency may be quashed.
For now, however, both are focused on creating the same kind of contrast for voters that Obama and Romney attempted to make in their convention speeches.
Allen, for instance, vowed to retirees at Leisure World in Leesburg, Va., that he was looking forward to “being the deciding vote to repeal Obamacare.”
McCaskill said Democrats have a more difficult sell to the public when it comes to the Affordable Care Act but that it will eventually take hold as people see the benefits.
“The message on our side, is a little more complicated. … Our side of the equation is complicated policy that doesn’t lend itself to easy sound bites. Their side of the equation is, ‘Don’t trust the government,'” she said in Warrensburg.