Immigrants and ag money mix together in Senate race

Monday, July 3, 2006

Candidate blasts firm that previously donated to her political campaign.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As a candidate for governor two years ago, Democrat Claire McCaskill met personally with executives of mega hog producer Premium Standard Farms Inc. to seek money for her campaign. She was rewarded with the maximum contribution.

Now, as a candidate for Senate, McCaskill is casting the Kansas City-based company as a shameful employer of illegal immigrants helping to bankroll Republican Sen. Jim Talent.

What has changed?

Nothing, from the perspective of Premium Standard, which has not been charged with employing illegal immigrants nor suffered any particular incident since then that would have naturally harmed its public image.

What has changed, however, is the office for which McCaskill is running and the public's attention on the millions of immigrants in this country illegally.

As Congress debates border security and guest worker programs, McCaskill has been traveling Missouri promoting tougher federal penalties for businesses that hire illegal workers. Part of her pitch includes an attack against Talent as the No. 1 friend of big agricultural companies that she alleges have "ties to hiring illegal workers."

Listed among McCaskill's names of shame is Premium Standard, whose political action committee has contributed $5,000 to Talent this election cycle -- its only donation to any Senate candidate, she notes.

What McCaskill doesn't note is that she personally solicited money from Premium Standard during her 2004 gubernatorial campaign and afterward received the maximum $1,200 donations for both the primary and general elections. Nor does she note that her Senate campaign also sent a fund-raising request to Premium Standard, which so far has gone unheeded.

Talent contends McCaskill's tactics on the immigration issue should themselves be a pivotal issue for voters -- an indication that she acts more like a Washington insider than he does.

"To accuse your opponent of something that's irrelevant to the issue you're talking about, that's perfectly acceptable and that you've done yourself -- that's just the kind of thing you have to change in Washington," Talent said in an interview.

McCaskill counters that Talent is trying to obscure her immigration message by focusing on the supporting arguments -- not the main theme.

"Common sense tells you that there is a large number of illegal immigrants working in corporate agriculture," she said in an interview, but "we have no way of knowing because this administration is not enforcing the law."

Whereas 909 employers were fined in 1995 for hiring illegal immigrants, just three were in 2004, McCaskill notes. She proposes higher fines and prison time for those who employ illegal workers.

McCaskill says she supports better border security, but the biggest need in immigration reform is to target the reason people are illegally crossing the border -- the companies willing to hire them.

Talent takes the opposite approach. He says he supports tougher penalties for businesses that hire illegal workers, but the biggest need is to seal off their supply of such workers with a border fence and stepped-up security.

As a member of the Senate agriculture committee, Talent says he has supported numerous policies benefiting family farmers, some of whom he notes work as contractors for the corporate agricultural companies McCaskill criticizes.

Talent says it's issues such as his support for value-added agricultural products -- like ethanol -- that have led him to be ranked by the Center for Responsive Politics as the No. 1 recipient of agribusiness money this election cycle. Whereas Talent has received at least $463,002 from agribusiness interests, McCaskill has received $25,100, according to the nonpartisan campaign watchdog group.

To suggest the agriculture industry gave him money to keep open the flow of illegal immigrants is "crazy," Talent said.

McCaskill says she's only trying to illustrate a cozy relationship. And if Premium Standard were to donate money to her this year, it wouldn't change her message.

"Let's be honest here, this is a sitting U.S. senator with a seat on the agriculture committee who has been very friendly and helpful to your company," McCaskill said in an interview. "I can assure you he has raised a lot more money than I have because he has that status. It's not as if these companies were ever going to help me -- he is their good friend."

And that, perhaps, best explains McCaskill's change in approach toward Premium Standard.

It's common for politicians to attack the funding sources of their opponents, said Gary Miller, a professor of American politics at Washington University in St. Louis. They do so, because it works with some voters.

"Everybody hates interest groups except the one they're in, right?" Miller said.

"Whoever happens to be your opponent's contributors, that's evidence for that opponent being responsive to special interests and not to the general public -- that's got to be about as close to a constant in American elections as you can find," he said.

For what it's worth, McCaskill seems to have obliterated any chance of actually getting money from Premium Standard this year.

"It would be pretty difficult to justify at this point, after being publicly criticized," said Premium Standard spokesman Charlie Arnot.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Capitol Correspondent David A. Lieb covers Missouri government and politics for The Associated Press.

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