Alice Ollstein contributed to this story.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is facing a delicate political balancing act as her home state is once again consumed by racial strife following a controversial court ruling freeing a white former cop who killed a black man.
St. Louis has returned to the epicenter of civil unrest in the United States as days of heated protests followed the Friday acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley of first-degree murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man accused of dealing heroin. Caught in the middle is McCaskill, who needs strong black turnout and good crossover performance from culturally conservative white voters to win another term in Congress.
The verdict appalled many the state’s black community, as Stockley was caught on tape declaring during a high-speed chase to catch Smith that he was “going to kill this [expletive], don’t you know it.” And it’s reopened wounds still fresh after the 2014 killing of black teenager Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson.
That leaves McCaskill, already facing a difficult reelection race, in a tough position. She needs strong black turnout to win reelection next year in a state that’s trended hard towards Republicans over the last decade, but also needs to do well with the type of suburban and rural white voters who are at least as upset about the broken windows and injured police officers as the verdict itself.
“She’s in a tough spot,” said one Missouri Democrat. “The left is going to want her to be stronger on the fact that this guy got killed. The right is going to want her to be ‘’blue lives matter.'”
McCaskill has largely stayed quiet on the ongoing protests, which have shut down businesses, forced cancellations of big events like U2 and Ed Sheeran concerts and have led to sporadic outbursts of violence, including the smashing of many shop windows and damage to the home of St. Louis’s mayor. Police had arrested more than 80 people through the weekend — and some police mocked protesters by appropriating their “Whose streets? Our streets” chant as they did so Sunday night.
Following the Friday verdict, McCaskill issued a carefully worded statement that sought to reach out to people on both sides of the heated debate, while calling for an improvement in police-community relations.
“Some Missourians are sure to be pained by today’s decision, and others will agree with the ruling, but the fact is that none of us can let it detract from the goals that we all should share — safer streets, where police have the trust of the communities they serve, and a system of justice that’s fair to all of our citizens,” she said in the statement. “The events in Ferguson shook our region to its core and forced us to face some tough realities. But since then, our law enforcement and the families and businesses they serve have begun talking and hearing each other. We can’t let today’s decision send us back to our respective corners.”
McCaskill’s statement stopped far short of what other Missouri Democrats had to say. Even the state party put out a statement that included “black lives matter,” while Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO) called the ruling an “absolute outrage.” It wasn’t enough for some African American leaders in the state.
St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones (D) called the comments “really middle of the line” and said she was disappointed that McCaskill, who she credited for working with the community on police reforms after Ferguson, hadn’t been more visible this time around. She said she hadn’t heard from the senator, or knew anyone who had, though others said McCaskill had been in touch with community leaders.
“If the African American community doesn’t see more of her soon that’s going to be a problem,” she told TPM. “Some people in politics will choose not to take a side. It’s a delicate line to balance if you don’t want to piss off one side or the other … I understand the kind of Democrat that does get elected [statewide] but at the end of the day you’re going to have to ask yourself, ‘whose side am I on?'”
McCaskill was a bit more forceful when TPM caught her in the Senate hallways Monday evening.
“We’ve got to get to work on healing. It’s not only important that justice be done but it’s also important that people perceive that the system is fair, and clearly there’s a problem. We’ve made a lot of progress after Ferguson but obviously we’ve got a lot more work to do,” she said.
McCaskill’s office declined to discuss the issue’s political impact, or any specific outreach she’d done with black leaders since the ruling.
“This topic is too serious to talk ‘politics’ around it. Claire has spent a lifetime working for equal justice under the law, and the people of Missouri know that,” McCaskill spokesman John LoBombard told TPM in an email.
Democrats say the roiling protests in Ferguson likely made culturally conservative white voters especially receptive to President Trump’s racially charged law-and-order arguments last year, partly fueling his lopsided 18-point win in a state that up through 2008 was a battleground. They blame Trump’s strong showing there for costing them the governorship and a Senate race where talented Democrats ran close to 10 points ahead of Hillary Clinton, but still fell short.
“The law and order stuff turned out a big base of Republican voters that came out to vote for Donald Trump,” said one Democrat who has worked on a number of races in the state.
McCaskill has longstanding relationships with black community leaders, and sponsored a 2015 bill aimed at demilitarizing police forces and boosting body camera usage. Those close to her say they expect her to work diligently to keep the lines of communication open both in black communities, and in the rural white areas that have trended hard away from her party in recent years. She’s already completed a listening tour that took her into some of the state’s reddest pockets.
“Racial tension is a fact of life in Missouri but to say you can be concerned about black voters and not win white voters elsewhere is an oversimplification,” said former Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Roy Temple. “She has a very strong understanding of how lots of different people in Missouri look at the world.”
After winning a nail-biter of a race in 2006, McCaskill coasted to reelection after then-Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-MO) “legitimate rape” comments doomed his 2012 campaign. Now, she’s going to need a lot of things to break her way, even if Democrats have the winds at their backs this year. And that means finding a way to get black voters excited about her campaign without alienating more culturally conservative whites.
Even her allies say she needs to be more vocal.
“If she keeps a hands-off approach and doesn’t make her presence felt on the issue she has a real opportunity to lose the enthusiasm of her base. That’s more important than some statement. The active dialogue and being on the ground with the community is where the real work will be done,” said the Democratic strategist who’s worked on races in the state. “At this critical time that community needs to see Claire is out there.”