COLUMBIA — Sen. Claire McCaskill has waded into the increasingly bitter race to replace Kenny Hulshof in Congress, endorsing fellow Democrat Judy Baker while blasting a negative ad that McCaskill says misrepresents her work as Missouri's state auditor.
The ad refers to a 2002 audit of theMU Health Care system and includes a brief image of McCaskill. Her audit found that the system lost nearly $10 million in unbilled charges and other financial missteps. A doctors' group overseen by Baker for a portion of the audit period lost more than $2 million.
Baker, a health care manager who now partially owns a Columbia consulting firm, was hired as University Physicians' interim director of operations in February 2000, about seven months after the audit period began. She was later elevated to interim executive director of the doctors' practice.
McCaskill told reporters Monday that Baker was "brought in to fix" what she called a "modest problem." She offered a strong endorsement of Baker, a two-term state representative from Columbia, in the 9th Congressional District vacancy created when Hulshof decided to run for governor.
She also criticized Baker's Republican opponent, former state lawmaker and Missouri tourism director Blaine Luetkemeyer, for hosting Vice President Dick Cheney at a Monday fundraiser in suburban St. Louis.
"You can tell what kind of congressman a person is going to be by the company they keep," she said. "I have a hard time believing that there are very many Missourians looking to Vice President Dick Cheney right now as a role model of what we want in government."
Luetkemeyer campaign spokesman Paul Sloca said the Cheney fundraiser is expected to raise more than $150,000. Cheney was also scheduled to appear Monday at a Cape Girardeau fundraiser for Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.
Sloca said the money was needed to counter contributions that Baker is receiving from "national liberals" like the abortion-rights group EMILY's List. Baker is also benefiting from negative ads against Luetkemeyer funded by Americans for Health Care, a union-backed group that advocates for affordable health care.
Sloca noted that Americans for Health Care is affiliated with ACORN, the national activist group dogged by a high-profile voter registration fraud scandal.
"This fundraiser will help provide the resources we need to counter the lies being forced upon the people of the 9th Congressional District," Sloca said.
Both candidates have raised more than $1 million in the race so far. But Luetkemeyer's haul includes $635,000 that he has lent the campaign from personal resources. Sloca would not comment on whether Luetkemeyer planned to spend more of his own money on the race.
McCaskill, who spent six years as state auditor before an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2004 and then her election to the Senate two years later, was effusive in her praise for Baker.
She singled out Baker's political "courage" for deciding to challenge Hulshof, an entrenched incumbent, before he decided to not seek re-election in the 9th District. She said the independent streak would extend in Congress.
"I have no doubt that Judy Baker would get in (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi's face and say, ‘I'm not going to vote for what you want me to vote for, if it's not right for my district,'" McCaskill said. "That independence is what we need more than anything in Washington right now."
Asked about McCaskill's comments, the Luetkemeyer campaign defended the audit mention in its latest ad.
"This is nothing more than a desperate attempt by McCaskill to rewrite the official record with politically motivated and vague excuses to try and save Baker's campaign," Sloca said. "If Judy Baker can't handle health care at the local level, she certainly isn't qualified to do so in Congress."
Hulshof, now the Republican nominee for governor, has been the face of the district since 1996, when he defeated 10-term incumbent Rep. Harold Volkmer, a conservative Democrat from northeast Missouri.
Hulshof's departure has elevated the open seat in the 9th District into one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country. National campaign organizers for both Democrats and Republicans have paid for numerous attack ads.
The 25-county congressional district stretches from Columbia north to the Iowa border but also skirts the St. Louis suburbs and parts of Lake of the Ozarks. The district includes the cities of Columbia, Hannibal, Kirksville, Hermann and western St. Charles County.