No one took Christine O’Donnell seriously when she said she had dabbled in witchcraft. But the flawed Senate candidate whose 2010 primary win in Delaware probably cost Republicans the seat is still haunting the GOP.
Even before his now-infamous comments on rape, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., presented Senate Republican leaders with a familiar problem. In O’Donnell, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Ken Buck in Colorado, the 2010 Republican primaries and accompanying grassroots support foisted upon the national party aggressively conservative candidates whose candidacies Republican strategists believe cost them those races and a shot at Senate control.
The difference this time is the speed, intensity, and coordination with which GOP leaders have moved to push Akin out of the race against Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and Senate Republican leaders closely coordinated responses Monday, setting the tone for their party.
In publicly suggesting Akin consider quitting, and letting it be known that the National Republican Senatorial Committee will deny Akin financial support if he does not, Senate GOP leaders are taking a big risk. Akin said Tuesday he would remain in the contest, though he suggested he could reconsider. Until Sep. 25, he can petition to be removed from the ballot. In response, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas explicitly called for him to quit.
“Sorry is not sufficient,” McConnell said. “To continue serving his country in the honorable way he has served throughout his career, it is time for Congressman Akin to step aside.”
As long as Akin stays in the race, Republican leaders, not Democrats, will have assured he is not electable. McCaskill can run endless ads citing Republican attacks on Akin. The party could be stuck with, in electoral terms, a dead candidate who they helped kill. Clearly eager to keep Akin in the race, McCaskill on Tuesday suggested GOP leaders stay out of the race.
It would be “a radical thing to try to force someone who had won an election honestly off the ballot just because you think you want to pick another candidate," she told St. Louis Fox affiliate KTVS. "I think that's wrong."
But the leaders have little choice but to push him aside, a GOP aide said. Akin is now unelectable so nothing party leaders say can harm his candidacy, the aide argued. “These things don’t happen overnight,” the aide said, arguing polls will swing sharply in McCaskill’s favor if Akin remains on the ballot.
On Tuesday afternoon, The Cook Political Report moved the race to “likely Democrat.” The Cook Report’s Jennifer Duffy said that “as long as Akin is running, it is unwinnable for Republicans. If he exits, it's back to "toss up.”
In 2010, Senate Republicans were singed by their early backing of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Trey Grayson in Kentucky. Crist embarrassed them by launching a failed independent bid against tea-party favorite Marco Rubio and Grayson, despite home-state support from McConnell, lost to Rand Paul in the primary. GOP leaders found themselves on the wrong side of the tea-party movement in those races and in Utah and Alaska, where they were obliged to stand by incumbents Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski, until both lost primaries.
Eager to shore up their right flank and with no real alternative, McConnell and Cornyn, whatever their private misgivings, embraced tea-party darlings Angle, O’Donnell, Buck, and Murkowski’s primary foe Joe Miller. The leaders even touted their financial support for O’Donnell’s campaign. GOP leaders pushed Murkowski out of a leadership post when she launched a successful independent reelection bid as a write-in candidate.
That caution continued in this cycle. Cornyn and other GOP leaders pointedly refused to take sides in primaries, hoping to avoid creating a perceived establishment candidate. The Republican aide called that distance “a lesson learned in 2010. People from the Republican grassroots don’t want the folks in Washington telling them who the nominee should be.”
Running in a primary field with businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, Akin was never the establishment choice. McCaskill and her party wanted to face Akin in the general election and ran television and radio ads to boost him in the primary contest. The House member likely also benefited from the Democratic-aligned Majority PAC's ads hitting the self-funding Brunner.
Once Akin won the primary, however, GOP aides say that the party backed him and worked with his team. But barely two weeks into the general-election campaign, Akin committed a series of gaffes. He called a McCaskill campaign website attacking his record accurate, admitted not knowing what was in a farm bill important to his state, suggested reconsideration of civil-rights laws, and called a federal school-lunch program unconstitutional. Akin’s recent statement that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy, while uniquely offensive, was just the worst in a series of statements advertising his unsuitability and the final straw that caused GOP leaders to conclude that he is unelectable against even the extremely vulnerable McCaskill.
Although GOP leaders were chastened in 2010, they also believe that with Senate control in the balance, they cannot afford to risk losing another winnable race.
The last cycle offered “a learning moment for some conservative leaders,” the GOP aide said. “Republicans left a few Senate seats on the table in 2010, which is critical when you consider how close we are to wining back the majority this year.… That is why everyone is one the same page here.”
The speed of the GOP reaction reflects the unique circumstance of Missouri law. Once they concluded Akin was irrevocably damaged, party leaders wanted him out by today’s deadline so that they could replace him on the ballot. (With Akin vowing to stay in the race and airing television ads apologizing, the GOP aides downplayed that deadline, noting that Akin can be replaced, albeit less easily, if he pulls out by Sept. 25, a point they will likely emphasize more strongly now that he has renewed his vow to fight).
In light of what is widely seen as the indefensibility of Akin’s statement, Republicans' unified response also indicates an effort to prevent it from damaging other campaigns, especially Romney’s, that were already struggling with female voters. The NRSC encouraged Republican Senate candidates to attack Akin’s remark before Democratic candidates could employ it as an issue in other states. Almost every GOP hopeful quickly issued statements ripping Akin. Former Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and Sens. Scott Brown, R-Mass., Dean Heller, R-Nev., on Monday urged Akin’s withdrawal. Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who shares with Akin the campaign consultant Rex Elsass — who Republicans aides privately call a key figure in advising Akin to remain in the race — condemned Akin’s statement as well.
Senate GOP aides on Tuesday emphasized that the push for Akin to step aside is widespread. Citing calls by the Tea Party Express, the National Review, and conservative commentators such as Fox’s Sean Hannity for Akin to quit, Republicans on Tuesday argued that the effort is not merely a top-down push but a spontaneous reaction to the idiocy of Akin’s statement. In a show of local opposition, a leading donor to Republican campaigns in Missouri, David Humphreys, called Akin a "moron” on Monday.
Julie Sobel contributed
Correction: In a previous version of this story, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s name was misspelled.