In a year when congressional town hall meetings have often turned angry, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill saw a much friendlier response Wednesday as she launched a series of town halls in predominantly Republican areas of Missouri.
About 150 people, the vast majority of them McCaskill supporters, turned out at a community college in the eastern Missouri town of Hillsboro, greeting her with a standing ovation and often interrupting with applause. She has plans for seven subsequent meetings this week in potentially hostile counties where Donald Trump won easily in the presidential election, carrying Missouri with more than 65 percent of the vote.
The response was far different than what some of McCaskill's Republican counterparts have heard from angry town hall crowds opposed to Trump's early agenda. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham have been yelled at, heckled and booed. In Oklahoma, Rep. Markwayne Mullin canceled a Tuesday evening meeting at a high school in Tahlequah, citing unspecified "safety concerns."
Many members of both houses of Congress are opting to connect with constituents by phone, social media and in controlled environments, rather than town halls.
McCaskill, 63, said hearing from constituents in person is vital.
"I will tell you even the most contentious town halls, I value them," McCaskill said. "Seeing Missourians face-to-face and hearing their questions and concerns matters. It isn't the same to do a telephone town hall. It isn't the same doing a Facebook Live."
The town hall did not include a microphone for attendees. Those wanting to ask questions submitted them prior to the event, and McCaskill read them. Near the end, she joked she was disappointed she hadn't received any questions "from somebody who will never vote for me."
McCaskill is among 10 Senate Democrats running in 2018 in states won by Trump. Republican Rep. Ann Wagner of suburban St. Louis is a likely contender for her seat, and Missouri's newly elected 37-year-old Republican attorney general, Josh Hawley, is being urged to run by supporters who include longtime Republican Sen. John Danforth and prominent donor David Humphreys.
McCaskill told the crowd she expects tens of millions of dollars to be spent to try and unseat her.
"The dark money is going to flood in here," McCaskill said.
Democrats face a tough battle in the Senate. Republicans already have a 52-48 majority and Democrats are defending 25 seats to the GOP's eight. Republicans are hoping to win a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.
McCaskill, first elected in 2006, acknowledged she is likely to be the underdog in her re-election bid, but said that's nothing new. A year before her 2012 election, she said, "I was a dead woman walking in terms of my election chances."
That was before her Republican opponent, Todd Akin, doomed his chances by telling a TV interviewer that women's bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape."
McCaskill drew criticism from Republicans last week when she voted against confirmation of Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. The Kansas City Star had released audio of her telling donors the decision was difficult because Gorsuch "was one of the better ones" among Trump's possible picks to fill the seat vacated by the death of Antonin Scalia in February 2016.
She told the Hillsboro crowd that the politically smart thing to do in largely conservative Missouri would have been to support Gorsuch. But she said she found portions of his record troubling.
Addressing possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, McCaskill urged caution until investigations are complete. She urged her colleagues on both sides of the aisle to work together to fix health care. And she drew loud applause in expressing support for Planned Parenthood.
McCaskill's Missouri counterpart, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, has not hosted a town hall since the election. It wasn't clear if he planned to do so. A spokesman did not return a phone message seeking comment.