McCaskill boosts political stock

Efforts during the presidential campaign earned her respect.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., speaks in Columbia on Oct. 24. McCaskill has increased her stature on the national politics stage with her support for President-elect Barack Obama, but is expected to remain in the Senate.

She was one of President-elect Barack Obama's key supporters, the first Democrat to endorse him after his loss in the New Hampshire primary and an ardent supporter of his campaign throughout the race.

Now, freshman U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is seen in some circles as a contender for a position in the Obama administration as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Since throwing her support behind Obama as co-chairwoman of his presidential campaign, McCaskill is viewed as one of the president-elect's strongest allies in the Senate. In a Nov. 30 appearance on Fox News Sunday, McCaskill defended Obama's response to the recent terrorist attacks in India and his plan for removing all U.S. forces from Iraq by mid-2010.

Last week, The Huffington Post reported that McCaskill might be in the running to replace Vermont governor Howard Dean, the current DNC chairman, who will be stepping down in January. In that scenario, she would be the official chairwoman and face of the committee with time to still fulfill her senatorial duties. An operative chair, like Obama's deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, would oversee daily functions of the committee. 

Officially, McCaskill has said she is not seeking a position in the Obama presidency or the presidency of the DNC. McCaskill spokeswoman Maria Speiser said in a statement that McCaskill wanted to use the rest of her term to focus on the needs of the state.

"Claire has not had any conversations with the Obama team about the position," Speiser said. "She's pretty happy being senator and representing Missourians, so she's staying put."

Nate Kennedy, the Young Democrats of Missouri College Federation chairman, said that while McCaskill might not gain significantly more power in the Senate or within the White House, she has raised Missouri's profile in the election and increased the importance of its issues to the president-elect.

"There's obviously a seniority order in the Senate, but I think she's become pretty close to Barack over the campaign," Kennedy said. "I think you saw that in the number of visits Obama (made to Missouri) compared to '04 and Kerry. He didn't just stick to St. Louis, but came out to other cities like Rolla, Columbia and Cape Girardeau."

Even conservatives agree that McCaskill raised her stock by throwing her support behind the winning candidate. 

Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said he believes McCaskill will have more influence as a freshman senator than other Democrats who did not play as large a role in the campaign.

"She goes from a backbencher just learning her role to someone who now can be one of the leaders of the Obama agenda in the Senate, somebody who will be looked to as a bellwether," Darling said.

MU political science professor Peverill Squire said even if McCaskill fails at securing more prominent post right away she would have some pull in an administration that faces many demands.

"I don't see her leaving the Senate for any other post for a considerable time," Squire said. "Her early endorsement of Obama and her campaigning on his behalf will certainly give her access to the president and his administration. She will be able to get Missouri's concerns a hearing. "

Squire acknowledged that powerful senators build such respect over the course of many years but said McCaskill will have to work at building it further over time.

"Senator McCaskill is likely to remain in the Senate," he said. "But whether it will produce tangible benefits for the state is debatable. Her efforts over the last year will make McCaskill more prominent in Democratic Party politics. But acquiring power and influence in the Senate is a long-term process, and she still has a ways to go in that regard."

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