"She has to vote for or against appropriation bills — that's what the citizens of Missouri hire her to do," said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University. But he added: "It seems to me that she has influence over federal policy that has directly benefited her husband."
"There certainly is a legitimate perception of a conflict of interest, but that's not the same thing as saying there is one," Connor said.
McCaskill's campaign said her position is no different than that of lawmakers who are farmers and vote for agriculture bills that include farm aid, or lawmakers who have family members in the military and vote for bills authorizing defense spending. Her campaign suggested it was a greater conflict for Akin to have supported a federal spending earmark for a highway near his suburban St. Louis home — though Akin's family received no money to construct it.
McCaskill ranks as one of the wealthiest members in Congress, largely because of her husband's business success, which was already well-established when she married Shepard in 2002. Her political opponents have long sought to make an issue of their finances.
In the 2004 gubernatorial primary, Democratic Gov. Bob Holden aired an ad accusing Shepard of running dangerous nursing homes that helped finance McCaskill's campaign. In the 2006 Senate race, Republican Sen. Jim Talent ran an ad accusing Shepard and McCaskill of using an insurance company based in the Bahamas as a tax shelter, which they denied. Last week, Akin began running an ad criticizing about $1 million in housing subsidies financed through the 2009 stimulus act that went to businesses affiliated with Shepard.
Although Akin is just now ramping up his assertions of a conflict of interest, Republican operatives had long planned that as part of their campaign theme against McCaskill. A consulting firm run by former Missouri Republican Party executive director John Hancock built a file on McCaskill's finances that has been shared in part with the state GOP. Hancock had been a campaign adviser to Republican Senate candidate John Brunner, who finished second to Akin in the Aug. 7 primary.
Akin has campaigned as an opponent of what he describes as an expansive federal government. He said the federal payments to businesses in which McCaskill's husband has an ownership stake shows McCaskill has "a personal interest in big government — something that benefits herself and her husband."