WASHINGTON — Sen. Claire McCaskill's use of her private airplane has turned into a $400,000 mistake, but the political costs could run even higher.
The first-term Democrat from Missouri always was likely to face a tough re-election fight next year.
"It looks like she's in for an absolute battle," said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "The challenge now is to find a way out and hope there is not another shoe to drop."
But if the Cook report, a campaign tip sheet widely read by political insiders, is any barometer, "Air Claire" as Republicans have dubbed the scandal, has already taken a toll.
Until this week, Cook had rated the 2012 Senate contest in Missouri as leaning Democratic. Now it's a "tossup."
The source of McCaskill's problems is the plane, an 11-year-old, eight-seat turbo-prop Pilatus PC 12/45. She is a co-owner, along with her husband, St. Louis businessman Joseph Shepard, and several other investors.
She has been on the defensive ever since Politico, an online and print political newspaper, reported this month that she charged taxpayers $76,000 for Senate travel on the aircraft between 2007 and 2010.
Then McCaskill discovered that the owners had never paid personal property taxes on the plane that were owed to St. Louis County. With interest and penalties, that bill came to $320,000.
"I made a huge mistake in assuming it had been taken care of partly because of the transparent nature of it," McCaskill said during an interview Friday on FM NewsTalk 97.1 in St. Louis. "I guess I just assumed that somebody who would have responsibility for this in my husband's organization would take care of it. That's why it was such a huge mistake on my part. I'm paying a very high price over it, which I should."
The owners quickly paid off most of the taxes, while awaiting the final bill. She sent the government a check for more than $88,000 for all the flights, though she only owed a fraction of the amount.
But the embattled senator is feeling the political fallout now. The question is, will it continue?
Republicans are buoyed and have filed complaints with the Senate Ethics Committee. Democrats worry privately, but publicly note that McCaskill apologized and quickly repaid the money.
"Voters have a very short memory and news cycles are very short," said Steve Elemendorf, who was chief of staff to former Democratic Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. "Obviously I'd prefer that it not happen. But it's March."
George Connor, who teaches political science at Missouri State University, said that it wasn't "the end of the world" for McCaskill, but added, "We know this is going to come back. This issue is not going to go away."
Allies and critics alike agree that McCaskill is a skilled politician and smart political strategist. They remain puzzled that she opened herself up to criticism by using the plane, even if the rules permit it and the costs were below what previous Missouri lawmakers have spent for charter flights, as she contends.
The controversy, at least for the time being, mars an image that she has worked hard to perfect: a common-sense, plain-spoken lawmaker raised in the Heartland, dismissive of perks and who everyone, whether they like her or not, knows as just "Claire."
But McCaskill also is among the wealthiest members of the Senate, due to her husband's financial success.
A lot of Missouri voters might have trouble relating to private planes worth $2.1 million, or finding tolerance for a well-heeled lawmaker who owes back taxes, regardless of whether the professionals paid to handle the books and follow the rules messed up.
After revealing the unpaid taxes on the plane, McCaskill said, "I really do feel a lot of people are going to say 'How in the world? They've got this big business and they're wealthy. How did they not self-report this airplane?"
And how does she treat the political wounds?
Democrats, including several who know her well, said that McCaskill has done exactly what she should have done. She didn't stonewall the issue or try to deny it, and she was the one who revealed that the plane's owners owed the back taxes.
"There's no doubt this is a big issue," said Michael Kelly, former executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party. "She took it head on. Now it's on to the next fight. Yeah, she made a mistake. But she manned up. We're still close to a year and a half from the election."
Democrats also are relieved that the Republican primary field for McCaskill's seat hasn't attracted what they consider an A-list candidate, at least so far, though several have declined to run. Only two, former state treasurer Sarah Steelman and Ed Martin, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Matt Blunt, have entered the race.
Former Ambassador Ann Wagner and six-term St. Louis-area Congressman Todd Akin also are weighing whether to jump in.
Privately, however, some Democrats are worried about future revelations. Republicans are demanding McCaskill release her tax returns for the company that owns the plane to prove she didn't profit from her Senate travels. So far she has resisted.
"Sometimes there are attacks in campaigns where there are a lot of dots to connect," said Nathan Gonzalez, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "This is a pretty easy message for Republicans."
Indeed, Republicans have been taking swings since the start.
"She abused the public trust," said Kansas City GOP political consultant Jeff Roe. "Now she's on the high wire. "One more slip and I do think she has a problem recovering." The episode was particularly embarrassing because, as a former Missouri state auditor, she had carved out a reputation on Capitol Hill as a reformer and government spending watchdog.
McCaskill actually owed only a fraction of the more than $88,000 that she paid to cover all of her Senate flights. Only two turned out to be political trips and not for official Senate business. But she said she paid for them all because she didn't want to leave the impression that she was taking advantage of taxpayers.
Her problem now is the damage to her credibility.
She also has opened herself up to charges of hypocrisy. Just last month, she co-authored a bill to fire federal workers who owe federal income taxes, but refuse to pay them. A few days before her own travel problems surfaced, she offered legislation to tighten the rules on taxpayer-funded foreign trips by her colleagues.
"Her persona that she promotes about herself is she is a person who's going to hold other people in office and in government to a very high standard," former Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who McCaskill defeated in 2006, said this week. "And that means she has to live up to it. And clearly she's not here."
McCaskill seems to know this.
During her radio interview, her trademark feistiness appeared to be missing. She called the flap "a big, sloppy, stupid mistake," but said she knew that it could hurt her chances for a second term.
"This is the kind of mistake that I know is one that that people won't forget, and I can only hope they will take it in context of all the work I've done," McCaskill said.
(Kraske reports for the Kansas City Star.)