ST. LOUIS (AP) — The college students and neighbors gathered at a St. Louis coffee shop seemed like one of the friendlier crowds Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill might face campaigning in heavily Republican Missouri. But the audience on a recent night came armed with tough questions and unafraid to push back — or cast a side eye — at any answer they didn't like.
Why did she support an immigration deal that increased funding for border security? (It was a compromise, McCaskill said, and "there's nothing wrong with having rules.") What did she think of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem? ("I don't think it's appropriate ... but I respect anybody's right to do it.")
Should Democrats run on impeaching President Donald Trump?
"I don't think so," McCaskill replied, acknowledging it wasn't what some wanted to hear. "I'm authentically a moderate. For those of you who are already irritated with me, now you're going to be more irritated."
The night summed up the double challenge facing McCaskill in a race that could decide whether Democrats take control of the Senate in November: The same liberal energy that's led to insurgent Democratic victories around the country is spurring voters she should be able to count on to demand that she move to the left, even as she has to attract some Trump voters to win in a state he carried by almost 20 percentage points.
The president has campaigned for her opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, telling an audience this summer, "We need Josh badly." Trump is scheduled to return to Missouri for a rally Friday.
Hawley, a 38-year-old Yale and Stanford graduate elected to his first public office in 2016, says McCaskill supports a "radical left-wing agenda" that's at odds with what Missouri voters want. He's called on McCaskill to debate him across the state, holding campaign events alongside a trailer with two lecterns, bales of straw and a "Let's Debate" banner.
"It is no small thing that people of this state voted for this president by 20 points," Hawley said during a stop in Columbia. "Quite frankly I think she's forgotten where she's come from."
Republicans view the contest as one of their best chances of flipping a seat in the Senate, where the GOP has a slim 51-49 majority, and polls show it's a toss-up.
Democrats are hoping the enthusiasm that's put the GOP-led House in play will spill over to the Senate, though the map there is much tougher. McCaskill is among 10 Democratic incumbents seeking re-election in states Trump won — some by wider margins than Missouri.
But the 65-year-old former prosecutor and state auditor has won tough races before, running as a moderate in an increasingly conservative state. She is one of only two Democrats serving statewide in Missouri. She narrowly defeated GOP Sen. Jim Talent in 2006 as part of a Democratic wave that saw the party win control of the House and Senate. In 2012, she was considered one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents until the GOP nominee, Todd Akin, said women's bodies can prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." The comment drew a national backlash, and McCaskill won easily.
Can she pull out another win this time around, in a political climate that's even more polarized?
Polls show Trump's approval rating has fallen since the 2016 election, including in Missouri, and McCaskill is pitching herself as a check on the president and some of his administration's "worst instincts." She's stressed her support of health care coverage, noting Hawley joined other GOP attorneys general in a lawsuit seeking to throw out the federal health law without providing for a way to continue coverage of pre-existing conditions.
Republicans expressed early concerns that Hawley, who was recruited by top GOP leaders including Vice President Mike Pence, wasn't living up to expectations. Hawley declared his candidacy less than a year after taking office and was slow to begin campaigning, prompting former GOP Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, one of his early backers, to warn that he needed to "gear it up and get with it." Bond didn't respond to several phone messages and emails seeking comment over the past week.
Hawley said he hasn't pulled away in the polls because McCaskill is benefiting from the advantages of incumbency and of running in the first midterm election under the opposing party's president, when historically the president's party loses seats.
"It's a feat to win," he said.
Meanwhile, McCaskill has received a small reprieve on Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, an issue where she's felt pressure from both sides.
At her event at the St. Louis coffee shop, held before a woman publicly accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, longtime supporter Reese Forbes wanted to know why she hadn't yet come out as a "no" vote. It was important to people — particularly women who believe that Kavanaugh supports overturning the abortion decision Roe v. Wade — to hear her say she's voting no, he said.
"I understand how strongly you feel," McCaskill replied, saying she was still reviewing documents but hoped to have a decision soon. "But when I go to other parts of this state, guess what? They feel just as strongly the other way."
Days later, the allegation of an assault 36 years ago surfaced. And on Wednesday, McCaskill came out with her decision: She'll be a no vote on Kavanaugh, largely because of his opinion that anonymous "dark money" spending on issues ads in campaigns should not be curbed. The sexual assault allegations were troubling, she said, but not the basis for her decision.
Hawley quickly derided her decision, linking it to his theme of an out-of-touch senator and tying her to the Senate's decidedly liberal Democratic leader. "Claire McCaskill is now 0 for 6 on Supreme Court nominees since she started running for the Senate 12 long years ago. She has sided with Chuck Schumer every single time - for liberals and against Missouri," Hawley said in a statement.
In the St. Louis coffee shop, Alena Johnston, a sophomore political science major at St. Louis University, said after the event near campus it was wise of McCaskill to be out courting college students. While she plans to vote for her, "a lot of my friends think their vote doesn't matter."
That, McCaskill said, is part of why she's "frustrated and worried about this election."
"I know that I may not be perfect in your eyes in terms of where I stand on every issue," she told the roughly 100 people in the coffee shop courtyard, urging them to help her campaign. "But I hope you will take a look at what's at stake."
This story has been corrected to show McCaskill is one of two Democrats serving, not elected, statewide.
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.