WASHINGTON — Sen. Claire McCaskill once turned a political opponent's use of a plane to her advantage. Now she's seeing the issue from a different vantage point.
With a tough re-election race in 2012, the Missouri Democrat has come under heavy criticism for her use of a plane she owns with her husband. First it was revealed that McCaskill, among the wealthiest members of the Senate, had received approximately $79,000 in federal reimbursements for her flights, including at least one to a political event. A few days later, McCaskill revealed that she and her husband had also failed to pay about $320,000 in state taxes on the plane.
The revelations have embarrassed McCaskill, who was elected in 2006 as a champion of good government. They have also emboldened GOP opponents eager to puncture her image as a plainspoken woman of the people. Republicans believe McCaskill's plane can serve as just one example of what they see as her straying from the will of Missouri voters.
"I think voters will hold against her that she said she was fighting government waste, talking about how there shouldn't be two sets of rules, and on the other hand she wasn't paying her property taxes," said Lloyd Smith, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "That in and of itself rubs people the wrong way."
McCaskill's frustrated supporters agree.
"The fact that a lot more people in the state know that she and her husband have a private jet, it's not the best thing that could happen," said Steve Glorioso, a Kansas City, Mo., media consultant who has worked with McCaskill in the past. "But she is very good at communicating with average Missourians, and campaigns make a difference."
McCaskill wraps the plane revelations up in a single phrase. "A serious, sloppy mistake," she told The Associated Press on Tuesday. She is adamant that she has not lost a common connection with Missouri voters.
"My husband's wealth is something that's been relatively new in my life," she said. "I do not feel disconnected to folks in Missouri. As somebody who was a single mom with three kids for much of a decade without really any support from anyone else, someone who worked my way through school – I don't feel the fact that my husband has been very successful has changed how I view my priorities in my job."
National Democrats certainly hope so. With the party clinging to a majority in the Senate after Republican gains in 2010, few races highlight the fragility of Democrats' majority more than McCaskill's. She was already a top GOP target in 2012, after she was elected by a slim margin in 2006, a good year for Democrats. In 2008, Missouri was one of the few swing states that President Barack Obama lost – even as McCaskill campaigned relentlessly for him. Since 2008, the president's poll numbers in the Show Me State have been well below his national averages.
It's against this backdrop that McCaskill has been hit with the fallout over the plane she owns with her husband, Joseph Shepard, through one of his business subsidiaries, even before she begins her re-election campaign in earnest.
McCaskill certainly knows how much damage the controversy could cause. In 2004, when she ran against incumbent Democratic Gov. Bob Holden in the primary election, she put up television ads showing an airplane circling around an outline of the state of Missouri, while an announcer criticized Holden for flying on "300 taxpayer-funded trips." The ads helped her defeat Holden, though she went on to lose the general election.
Asked about her ads against Holden, McCaskill dodged the question. "I know everyone wants to get into political this and that," she said. "I'm trying to keep this simple. I found a mistake. I owned the mistake."
Her critics, though, say it shows her to be a hypocrite and fits a pattern of behavior. Brian Walsh, a spokesman the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, said McCaskill has spent her time demanding more transparency in Congress while holding herself to a different standard.
"Her refusal to engage in the same level of transparency she's demanded of others has left more and more voters wondering if they can trust what she says," Walsh said.
McCaskill has spent her four years in the Senate working on initiatives to curb government waste and abuse and was among the few Senate Democrats to shun earmarks.
Republicans say that image has been irreparably damaged by the plane episode.
McCaskill argues that she's been forthright and addressed the issues surrounding her plane straight on since they came to her attention. She has paid her back taxes, she said, and has written a reimbursement check to the U.S. Treasury Department. Her own situation has redoubled her commitment to transparency, she said.
But she acknowledges the political damage is tough to calculate.
"The voters are going to have to decide here," she said. "I'm not going to shy away from who I am."
Mike Zweifel, a Republican from Columbia, Mo., said he is skeptical that the plane alone could doom McCaskill. Next year is a long way off, he said, and the plane might not be the most important thing to voters. But he says it offers Republicans an important talking point.
"If the (former) state auditor can't pay her taxes on time, what does that say about her credibility?" he said.
Missouri Republicans say the plane is the first crack in an image McCaskill has crafted over more than 30 years in state and local politics. They have long sought to raise awareness about McCaskill's fortune – she is among the wealthiest members of the U.S. Senate – and the business ties of her husband.
McCaskill, though, has some factors in her favor. Besides the early timing of the plane revelations, Missouri Republicans have not settled on a consensus candidate. A potentially bruising primary is likely.
And then there is the candidate herself, a proven fundraiser and dogged campaigner who has earned a reputation for surviving bizarre and difficult developments in her past campaigns.
When McCaskill was a county prosecutor in Jackson County, Mo., her then-husband was arrested for marijuana possession. She still won re-election. (She divorced her husband, now deceased.)
In both the 2004 gubernatorial race and her 2006 Senate race, her opponents made an issue out of Shepard's extensive business ties.
"I have had some very tough campaigns," McCaskill said. "In fact, most of my campaigns have been very tough. There have been all kinds of attacks on me, on my husband. So this doesn't surprise me."
Associated Press writer Alan Scher Zagier in Columbia, Mo., contributed to this report.