The Slatest

Obama Returns to Help a Vulnerable Senate Democrat

President Barack Obama speaks at a podium with Claire McCaskill to the right.
Barack Obama speaks during a fundraiser for Sen. Claire McCaskill in St. Louis back in 2010. Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Barack Obama is getting back in the game. The former president plans to hold a fundraiser for Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill this spring, his first appearance for an individual candidate since leaving office.

According to an invitation obtained by Politico, the May 6 event will take place in Beverly Hills, California, and it will come with the usual glitzy trappings. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, director J.J. Abrams, and his wife, Katie McGrath, will host, and the final guest list is expected to include a number of other Hollywood players.* The invitation didn’t list ticket prices for the event but given the location and the headliner, it’s a safe bet it will bring in a boatload of cash for McCaskill.

She’s going to need it.

McCaskill is one of 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election this year in states that went for Donald Trump two years ago. Of those 10, McCaskill is one of four that nonpartisan handicappers see as the most vulnerable this November (the others: Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Joe Donnelly in Indiana). Given Democrats have only a handful of legitimate pickup opportunities of their own, defending those seats will be crucial if they are going to retake control of the Senate next year.

Trump won Missouri by 19 points over Hillary Clinton two years ago, and Clinton hasn’t made McCaskill’s life any easier since then. Republicans are currently running digital attack ads linking McCaskill to a pair of remarks Clinton made about Trump voters: her “basket of deplorables” comments in 2016 and similar ones she made earlier this month about Trump appealing to voters by “looking backwards.” That’s left McCaskill to do an awkward dance whereby she defends Trump voters while still trying not to alienate her base of Clinton voters, some of whom feel the same about the president and his supporters as the woman they wanted to see in the White House does.

McCaskill will be far more excited to be linked to Obama, who she backed over Clinton early in their 2008 nominating fight. Obama lost Missouri that year, but only by a narrow 4,000 votes. In 2012, he lost to Mitt Romney by about 200,000 votes, while Clinton lost to Trump by roughly half a million votes in the state. Clinton has somehow become even more unpopular nationally since then, a rarity for a losing presidential candidate and all the more remarkable given just how unpopular she was during the campaign. Obama, meanwhile, has only become more popular in the age of Trump. According to Gallup, his job approval rating was at 59 percent when he left office, about 11 points higher than he averaged during his eight years in office. America’s collective memory has only grown fonder since then. Last month, 63 percent said that in hindsight they approve of the job he did as president. If Obama’s willing to make the rounds on the midterm circuit, the vast majority of Democrats will be thrilled to have him.

McCaskill, who is seeking a third term, is expected to face Josh Hawley in the general election. Hawley, a 38-year-old state attorney general, was a top GOP recruit this cycle, though there were some vague whispers of buyers’ remorse as recently as last month.* Hawley’s team has suggested those were planted in the media by McCaskill’s camp, though it is clear he has not yet become the political force his party had hoped. As of the end of 2017, the last time candidates filed campaign finance reports, he had raised roughly $1.8 million. That’s a decent sum, but it’s nothing compared with the $13.6 million McCaskill had brought in. He began the year with $1.2 million on hand; she began it with $9.1 million.

Being outraised is never a good thing for a candidate, but Republican super PACs are likely to help make up some of that difference. Perhaps the more immediate concern among Republicans are comments Hawley made last December at an event hosted by a Christian political group, during which he blamed sex trafficking today on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Hawley later doubled down on those comments, despite the criticism, and the episode has sparked some fears that the party’s candidate could implode again, in a repeat of the last time they tried to take down McCaskill. Todd Akin lost by 16 points in 2012 after opining about “legitimate rape” during the campaign.

McCaskill, never one to let an opportunity go to waste, sent out a fundraising pitch making that very connection shortly after Hawley’s comments came to light.

Correction, March 28, 2018: This post originally misidentified McGrath as an actress.; she is a public relations executive. It also misstated Hawley’s age. He’s 38, not 37.