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Claire McCaskill: Will flap over her plane ground Democrat's career?

Sen. Claire McCaskill already was going to face a tough 2012 reelection in Missouri. But news about unpaid taxes on – and questionable use of – her plane are weighing on the Democrat's chances.

By Staff writer / March 24, 2011

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this Feb. 15 file photo.

Alex Brandon/AP

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Washington

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri was never going to have an easy time in her 2012 reelection battle. The first-term senator represents a Republican-leaning state that went (barely) for GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008 and has only gotten more Republican since then.

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Enter “Air Claire,” the flap over an airplane owned jointly by Senator McCaskill, her husband, and a group of investors.

In the past two weeks, following press inquiries, McCaskill has paid more than $400,000 to both the federal government and St. Louis County to cover the cost of charter flights she took, plus back taxes and interest. The incident combines what she admits is negligence on her part regarding the back taxes with controversy over her use of the plane, which at a minimum had the appearance of impropriety.

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For McCaskill, an advocate for government ethics and transparency, the news has been devastating.

On Thursday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report recategorized McCaskill’s reelection race from “lean Democrat” to “tossup.”

The airplane brouhaha “definitely makes things a heck of a lot harder for her,” says Jennifer Duffy, the Senate-watcher for Cook. “The biggest problem for her to overcome here is that it so undercuts the senator and the candidate she’s tried to be. From every angle, the optics are bad.”

Public money for private plane

McCaskill’s troubles began more than two weeks ago, when the website Politico began digging into public records on the plane, an eight-seat Pilatus PC 12/45 aircraft. Politico reported that she had spent “nearly $76,000 in public funds since 2007 to fly on a charter plane she co-owns with her husband and other investors.” Those flights had been paid for from McCaskill’s Senate office budget, which raised questions over whether she was using public money to subsidize the plane, Politico said.

While Senate rules do allow for the use of private aircraft for official business, McCaskill paid more than $88,000 to the US Treasury to cover those costs. Then it came out that at least one of the trips was to a political event, a violation of Senate rules. Republicans have filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee.

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