‘Claire Air’: How Bad Is It For McCaskill?


Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) attempted to bring an end to the series of bad stories about her air travel on a conference call with reporters yesterday.

“I have convinced my husband to sell the damn plane,” she said. “He has hired a broker, and I can tell you I will never set foot on the plane again.”

It’s not a bad plan. The private twin-engine plane, which McCaskill owns along with her husband and several investors, was meant, McCaskill has said, to provide a convenient (and, she says, cheaper) way to get around Missouri on official business. But in addition to hastening her trips to constituent meetings, the plane has given her opponents plenty of runway to launch attacks as her 2012 reelection campaign begins.

Though the ethical questions are murky, and McCaskill has opened her checkbook to repay the real expense of the flights and the unpaid taxes she owed on the plane, there’s no denying that the optics surrounding the private flights are about as bad as optics can get.A quick backgrounder of the scandal so far:

On March 9, Politico reported McCaskill had charged taxpayers for 89 flights she took on the plane she owns. Though it’s not rare for senators to charter flights for official business, and it’s a common and accepted practice for senators to charge the government for those flights, McCaskill sent the Treasury $88,000 to cover the cost of the flights after Politico asked about them.

Then it was discovered that at least one of the flights was a political trip and definitely should not have been paid for with taxpayer money. McCaskill said she was “embarrassed.” Which is also what she said yesterday when she revealed that she failed to pay close to $287,000 in personal property taxes on the plane.

McCaskill also said she has attorneys looking for more political travel on the official flight list. So far, they’ve found some.

Adding to the political peril for McCaskill: Her very public record of taking others to task for transgressions with strikingly similar overtones.

• De Planes! De Planes!

In 2009, McCaskill was on the warpath over runaway Congressional spending. Her main target? A small fleet of business jets the House Appropriations Committee authorized the Air Force to buy for “ferrying top government officials and Members of Congress.”

“Talk about the wrong message at the wrong time,” McCaskill said at the time. “While American families are tightening their belts there is no way we should be buying extra executive jets. No wonder so many people think we don’t get it.”

• The YouTube Effect

As the former state auditor, McCaskill’s had a thing or two to say about paying taxes on time and in full in the past. Take for instance this ad McCaskill ran in 2006, flagged by Ben Smith today:

Also take a look at what she said about former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) when he dropped his bid to become HHS Secretary after becoming embroiled in his back taxes troubles:

That video has been having a good run on the conservative blogs lately, as you might expect.

So far, there haven’t been any polls post-‘Claire Air’ (as the GOP calls it) to show what, if any, effect the bad news has had on McCaskill’s reelection prospects. Polls taken right before the first story on the flights broke showed McCaskill locked in a tight race with her potential Republican opposition.

For their part, Democrats are still bullish on McCaskill. Sources told Chris Cillizza that “her political brand, plus time” before Election Day will keep her from being permanently damaged by the story. But Republicans clearly think they’ve found their in, and it’s not surprising why: now that the scandal’s off the ground, Claire Air doesn’t appear to be coming down anytime soon.

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