‘They don’t get it.’ Reps. Cleaver, Clay blame McCaskill loss on poor black outreach

Sen. Claire McCaskill and Democratic Party officials lost a winnable race in Missouri because they ignored the advice of the state’s African American leaders, Reps. Emanuel Cleaver and William Lacy Clay charged.

McCaskill’s loss, which follows Democratic defeats in every statewide race in 2016, has reignited a debate about whether Missouri Democrats should focus on trying to win back predominantly white rural voters or steer more resources into boosting turnout in the state’s cities.

And it has re-ignited long-simmering tensions between McCaskill and the state’s most prominent black leaders.

Turnout in Kansas City and St. Louis, where much of the state’s black vote is concentrated, actually surpassed other midterm elections going back to at least 2002.

But the impact of the urban vote was eclipsed by a higher turnout rate in the state’s strongly Republican rural regions— which McCaskill’s campaign blamed on President Donald Trump’s successful efforts to boost Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley.

Cleaver was the first African American to serve as Kansas City’s mayor. Clay, the son of a congressman, is a St. Louis Democrat first elected to Congress in 2000. Both tore into McCaskill’s campaign and party officials over what they saw as a failure to tap into the concerns of African American voters.

“Cleaver and I started out early on trying to convince Claire, trying to convince the DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) and the state party that they needed to do more than come in a week out and have chicken dinners for certain black officials,” Clay told McClatchy. “You need to build up some momentum.”

Clay said he and Cleaver offered to collaborate with McCaskill on a ground game strategy, but were rebuffed. McCaskill’s campaign disputes Clay’s characterization.

“To me, this was a winnable race,” Clay said. “I’m truly sad that my friend Claire ran the campaign that she did that failed to produce any real enthusiasm or engagement with urban voters.”

McCaskill said the vote totals in the state’s urban areas prove that her campaign succeeded in engaging voters in the state’s cities.

“We know that St. Louis County and St. Louis City and Kansas City produced raw totals that were higher than our expectations,” McCaskill said.

“I can’t speak to why the turnout was so large in red areas… I think it’s a false narrative to say that because turnout was so high in red areas that you discount the incredibly high turnout that we had in blue areas, too.”

The results of the past two elections demand that Missouri Democrats pursue a new strategy in 2020 when the governor’s office will be up and Trump will be on the ballot again, argued African American leaders in the state.

“It’s time to change the playbook. How many more losses do Democrats have to incur?” said Michele Watley, the founder of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, a Kansas City-based group that mobilizes African American women.

Watley’s group hosted a forum for congressional candidates from both sides of the state line and only two showed up to speak to the crowd of 200 African American women on a rainy Saturday in October: Cleaver and Kansas Democrat Sharice Davids, who went on to defeat Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder.

Cleaver was skeptical that Missouri Democrats will change their strategy for statewide elections anytime soon.

“They’re not going to listen. They know better. They studied it in some books and they’ve concluded that they’re not going to listen to the stupid members of Congress,” he said.

The Missouri Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment.

Cleaver saw little evidence campaign officials could change. He derided the weak message of a radio ad he grudgingly recorded on behalf of McCaskill’s candidacy that was aimed at African American voters.

“It was like, ‘Cats are furry and we like to hold them and they do a nice meow. Please vote for McCaskill,’” Cleaver said.

“This is milquetoast. This is nothing. This is not going to help get one single vote,” Cleaver recalled telling the ad’s producers. “What I’m trying to explain is: They don’t get it.”

McCaskill has won more than 90 percent of the African American vote in all of her campaigns for Senate, but African American voters made up a smaller share of the state’s overall electorate this year, according to exit poll data from the National Election Pool.

African American voters made up an estimated 8 percent of the state’s voters in 2018 compared to 16 percent in 2012 and 13 percent in 2006 when McCaskill successfully won the Senate seat, according to exit poll data gathered by CNN and other news outlets.

Kansas City’s urban core had a turnout rate of 49.8 percent— a drop of 12 percentage points from 2012 when McCaskill ran for re-election and President Barack Obama was on the top of the Democratic ticket.

That was an improvement on the city’s 41.2 percent turnout rate in 2006 and on the 38 percent the city produced in 2010 when Republican Sen. Roy Blunt was first elected to the Senate in another mid-term election.

The City of St. Louis also improved on its past turnout rates in mid-term election by double digits with its turnout rate of 51.7 percent.

Majority Forward and BlackPAC, two national progressive groups, spent a combined $6 million and say they knocked on 500,000 doors in an effort to turn out minority and young voters, according to Chris Hayden, the spokesman for Majority Forward. The group has ties to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

But the totals for both cities lagged behind this year’s statewide turnout rate of 57.9 percent.

Cape Girardeau County, a GOP stronghold where Trump spent election eve, had a turnout rate of 60.8 percent, an increase of more than 4 percentage points over its turnout in 2006 when McCaskill won.

McCaskill lost the statewide vote in Missouri by the same margin— 51 percent to 45 percent —as Democrat Chris Koster, who ran for governor in 2016 and lost to Republican Eric Greitens.

“They ran rural Democratic campaigns and were counting on the cities to show up,” said Geoff Gerling, executive director of the Jackson County Democratic Committee. “I don’t know why a statewide Democrat would really want to do the work of courting a lot of the rural vote.”

McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard said that vote totals show with “crystal clarity that Democrats need to be competing for every single vote, not just votes in areas where we’re popular.”

McCaskill spent the year following Trump’s election crisscrossing the state for a series of town halls in deeply Republican areas and making overt appeals to Trump voters.

Jeff Roe, a longtime GOP consultant from Missouri, said that McCaskill gave up her credibility with rural voters when she voted against Trump’s nominees for the Supreme Court.

“She gave up her 30 year history of competing in rural Missouri,” Roe said.

McCaskill sought to repair the strained relations with the African American community throughout 2018 and notably held her election eve event at the Kansas City church where Cleaver’s son serves as pastor.

“There’s always something more that you think you could do looking back, but I know we made it a huge priority in the campaign,” McCaskill said. “It was just that the enthusiasm was also very high in the Trump parts of the state.”

Bryan Lowry: 202-383-6167, @BryanLowry3