By Kevin McDermott
Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill today took her fight for re-election to the produce-filled stalls of Soulard Farmer's Market, hitting her Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, on his opposition to a federal farm bill.
Akin's campaign countered that McCaskill's support of keeping in place a federal estate tax--which conservatives deride as a "death tax"--is more harmful to farmers. It also noted that Akin last week won the backing of the Missouri Farm Bureau.
At one level, McCaskill's press event was scripted to hammer at her campaign's issue of choice this week--support for agriculture--right down to the blue jeans and scuffed boots she wore. "In this farm bill is the lifeline that Missouri agriculture needs," McCaskill told reporters as she stood before a stand of peaches, cherries and apples. "I don't think Mr. Akin comprehends how big this problem is."
But she also used the issue get at what is becoming the broader theme of the contest: A fundamental debate about the proper role of the federal government in Missourians' lives.
"I just think his view is that the government shouldn't have any programs: We shouldn't have a minimum wage, we shouldn't have any farm programs," McCaskill said. "He doesn't believe we should be helping with student loans. . . I say balance, he says the federal government needs to get out entirely."
This year's federal farm bill, which would continue crop insurance and other assistance for farmers, has passed the Senate but stalled in the House. Conservatives, including Akin, say they oppose the food stamp provisions which make up much of the spending.
McCaskill this week is on a six-day, 20-stop statewide tour hitting the agriculture issue and tying it to this summer's drought.
"We have a crisis. We have a drought that is historical. Our economy in Missouri is completely dependent on agriculture," she said. "I am frustrated beyond words that we have passed a strong farm bill in the Senate ... and (in the House), it has stalled, because the Tea Party is refusing to allow it to come to the floor for a vote. And one of those people who is blocking this critical relief for our farmers and ranchers right now is Todd Akin."
Akin's campaign in its written response called McCaskill's agricultural campaign tour "nothing more than an election-year ploy designed to mask her long record of voting against the Missouri farm community."
The statement went on to chide McCaskill for her support of the concept of a federal estate tax, which currently taxes inherited estates at 35 percent.
The issue is a big one for farmers who pass their family farms down through generations. Republicans are pushing to keep the current rate and exempt the first $5 million, while Democrats are pushing a plan that would hike the rate to 55 percent and exempt only the first $1 million.
McCaskill has said she opposes the Democratic estate tax hike plan, and essentially has supported the Republican version that would keep the rate the same as it is currently. But Akin has argued against the very concept of an estate tax.
"I support keeping the death tax as low as we can get it. Zero would be just about right for me," Akin told a meeting of the Missouri Farm Bureau last week, according to the Insurance Journal.