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Analysis

Todd Akin Pains GOP

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Missouri Republican Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and his wife Lulli Akin, left, take part in a news conference at the start of a statewide bus tour, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012, in St. Louis.(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Todd Akin is one of the most conservative Republicans to win a Senate nomination this year. But it sure sounds like he's reading off a script written by his Democratic opponent's campaign.

The Missouri Republican, picked last month as his party's nominee against Sen. Claire McCaskill, declared yet again he would stay in the race on Tuesday as a deadline to replace him on the ballot passed. He defied a virtually unprecedented effort from state and national party leaders to get him to quit the race after comments he made regarding rape and pregnancy.

 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee and American Crossroads, the outside group that has already spent tens of millions on behalf of other Republican Senate candidates, both cancelled planned advertising blitzes in the state. And Sen. John Cornyn, who heads the NRSC, has maintained a simple message about Akin's candidacy: "We're done."

National Republicans nearly succeeded in cutting off Akin's money supply. At one point, a Missouri television station said it had cut off Akin's advertisements for nonpayment, though the campaign disputed whether the ads were ever cut off. An Akin strategist said the campaign is no longer running advertising on that particular station, in the Columbia-Jefferson City media market. 

But social conservatives rallied to his defense; Phyllis Schlafly appeared at Akin's press conference on Tuesday, and over the weekend former House Speaker Newt Gingrich campaigned with him. Sen. Jim DeMint has indicated his Senate Conservatives Fund would funnel money to Akin's campaign, another act the South Carolinian has taken that stands in contrast to Senate Republican leadership's wishes.

 

McCaskill couldn't have scripted it any better. Facing long odds after several pro-administration votes on unpopular legislation like the health care law and the stimulus package, polling showed McCaskill trailing all three of her potential rivals by significant margins just days before the August 7 Republican primary. But Akin, who had his own long voting record as well as trouble raising money, appeared to be the weakest candidate in the field.

McCaskill ran several advertisements before the primary targeting all of her opponents. She took businessman John Brunner to task for shipping jobs overseas; she attacked Sarah Steelman, the former Missouri state Treasurer, for practicing politics as usual. But the ad she ran against Akin labeled him a "crusader against bigger government" carrying a "pro-family agenda."

In a Republican primary, that amounted to a positive spot. And though the McCaskill campaign kept it quiet, the Akin ad ran far more often than the spots against either of her two other would-be rivals.

Republican voters bit. In a letter to the Springfield News-Leader, one reader wrote: "I think it's time for someone who may be too conservative. Thank you, Sen. McCaskill for running that ad. You have helped me determine that my vote needs to go to Akin."

 

McCaskill's theory was that Akin might say something offensive during the general election, which would give the embattled Democrat the opening she needed to win what looked like an improbable re-election. No one, Democrat or Republican, expected Akin to go off the rails so soon. Just 12 days after winning the primary, Akin told a St. Louis Fox affiliate he believed a woman's body could stop a pregnancy caused by a "legitimate rape."

Underscoring the damage that remark caused, McCaskill stayed virtually silent as the Republican establishment tried to boot Akin from the ballot. But once the deadline for dropping out passed, McCaskill launched a new advertisement late Tuesday broadcasting the comment statewide. "What will he say next?" the advertisement asks.

Republicans believe Akin's comments all but disqualify him from office, and several polls taken during the last month show McCaskill surging ahead.

But there are broader ramifications: Republicans need to win a net of four seats to take control of the Senate, and they counted Missouri as one of the states they would certainly win.

Now, the GOP is investigating other paths to a majority, paths that meander through more Democratic-leaning states like Connecticut and Maine, and through more entrenched Democratic incumbents in Florida and Ohio.

Republicans have plenty of opportunities to get to the 51 seats they would need to control the Senate outright. Polling shows Sen. Ben Nelson's seat in Nebraska is almost certain to turn red, while Sen. Jon Tester is running slightly behind Rep. Denny Rehberg in a recent Mason-Dixon survey in Montana. But Republican candidates are running behind expectations in North Dakota, Wisconsin and Indiana, and vulnerable Republican incumbents in Massachusetts and Nevada give Democrats room to expand the playing field. Polls even show longer-shot Democratic hopes like Arizona narrowing as voters tune in.

Akin's intransigence has unquestionably made the Republican path to 51 seats more difficult. But Missouri Republicans, now that he can no longer be dislodged, are slowly coming to his defense, however meekly.

"Congressman Akin and I don’t agree on everything, but he and I agree the Senate majority must change. From Governor Romney to the county courthouse, I'll be working for the Republican ticket in Missouri, and that includes Todd Akin," said Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri's junior senator, in a statement issued Tuesday that may qualify as the year's most tepid endorsement.

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