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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Todd Akin? How Do You Solve a Problem Like Todd Akin?

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Columns / Gwen's Take

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Todd Akin?

photo of Gwen Ifill
October 5, 2012

One of the most enduring tropes in political language is the use of the term “trickle-down.”

It was widely used to describe Ronald Reagan’s budget, which was based on the idea that cutting taxes at the top could benefit those in the middle and at the bottom.

At this week’s debate, Mitt Romney went with a variation of the term, accusing President Obama of supporting “trickle-down government.”


But the real trickle-down this election year can be found in a handful of down-ballot races that could tip the partisan balance in Congress, especially in the Senate.

If Romney’s post-debate rebound lasts, no one will benefit more than Republican Senate candidates competing in tight races in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Arizona, Nevada, North Dakota, Virginia, and Missouri. That is the ultimate trickle-down.

In Missouri, at least, that’s what has Republicans so worried. I spent some time in the state this past week covering the Senate race between Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill and the GOP challenger, Rep. Todd Akin.

Akin has caused quite a stir this cycle by being Akin. A staunch conservative who steadfastly believes there is never a reason for abortion, he has split an already existing gender gap wide open.

He gained national notice when he told a local interviewer that victims of “legitimate rape” cannot conceive because their bodies can shut down. He later said he was mistaken, and apologized.

But that was not the first time the five-term congressman’s strong views have caught notice. On the House floor, he once likened abortion providers to terrorists. And after a recent debate with McCaskill, he expressed surprise she had not been more “ladylike.”

“The first two minutes, wow, it's like somebody let a wildcat out of the cage," he said, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Financial supporters, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Karl Rove’s multimillion dollar political action committee, have cut him off. Elected officials, up to and including nominee Mitt Romney, have urged him to drop out.

But Akin won’t quit. And McCaskill’s fortunes -- which had been considered endangered -- have dramatically improved. At a campaign event last weekend, a staffer laughingly introduced her as “the very ladylike Claire McCaskill.”

National Republicans have been counting noses in the narrowly-divided Senate, and some of Akin’s GOP critics at home -- including Sen. Roy Blunt and former Sens. Jim Talent and Kit Bond -- have sheepishly rescinded their calls for him to leave the race.

But other Missouri Republicans like John Danforth – a former senator and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations -- have begun to worry aloud about a different kind of trickle-down -- a reverse coattail effect that could tarnish his entire party.

“I thought that he should quit,” Danforth told me when we sat down at the St. Louis law offices of Bryan Cave, where he is now a partner. “But I think it's especially important for Republicans to disassociate themselves with Todd Akin and with what he said. Because we cannot be viewed as a party that embraces what could be called Akinism. And I think it's really important for us to say as a party, or at least for some Republicans to say, this is not the party as we know it.”

Danforth looked pained. He would like to see Republicans gain the Senate majority. He would like to see Mitt Romney defeat Barack Obama. But he draws the line at Akin.

“I think that the Republican Party has a very wonderful tradition in history, and it's stood for concepts that are very important in our country,” he continued. “And it's really important to do so right now. I mean the Obama program -- not just short-term, but in the year 2020 -- he has federal spending at 24 percent of the total economy. That is a big reset in the role of the federal government. That is the issue that we should try to frame and try to present to the American people.

“But the problem with Akin is before you can get to that argument, in the minds of most people, people think that the Republican Party has become something that's just awful in their minds because it's become negative,” he said. “It's become something that's insulting to groups of people, and we can't do that.”

When I asked Akin to sum up his chances in the face of such criticism, he was not flummoxed by this argument. He said he’s where he needs to be.

“Well, I think the chances are very, very strong. Maybe stronger than people realize,” he told me. “I've been getting around the state and there are a lot of people coming out to meetings, and they're not necessarily all Republicans. Because they want to see somebody who is strong enough to stand up to the establishment in Washington, D.C.”

If Danforth is right, Akin is trickling up, not down, and could leave a stain on the party. If Akin is right, the party could use the jolt.

In the latest Missouri poll released this week, McCaskill had surged to a six-point lead.

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