Democrats’ Plan to Create the Next Todd Akin

The party is hoping to keep Republicans talking about reproductive issues, and is praying for a candidate to make another massive mistake.

KIRKWOOD, MO - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) speaks to supporters during a fundraiser, which was also attended by Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, on September 24, 2012 in Kirkwood, Missouri. Gingrich was in the St. Louis area to support Akin's U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Claire McCaskill. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sophie Novack
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Sophie Novack
July 16, 2014, 7:31 p.m.

Demo­crats are not just hop­ing for an­oth­er Todd Akin, they’re try­ing to cre­ate one — and they think the Su­preme Court’s Hobby Lobby de­cision just helped them do it.

Sen­ate Demo­crats failed Wed­nes­day in their bid to ad­vance le­gis­la­tion that would neg­ate the Court’s con­tra­cep­tion-cov­er­age de­cision. But while can­celing out the Court was the goal, it was nev­er the whole point.

In­stead, Demo­crats are try­ing to keep the na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion fo­cused on re­pro­duct­ive rights, hop­ing to goad Re­pub­lic­ans in­to talk­ing about the is­sue. The more they talk about abor­tion and con­tra­cep­tion, the think­ing goes, the more time will be spent on an is­sue where Demo­crats think they have the up­per hand — and the more likely a GOP can­did­ate is to doom his cam­paign with an Akin-like gaffe.

“The fas­cin­at­ing thing to me is I thought Re­pub­lic­ans had learned their les­son about delving in­to wo­men’s health and re­pro­duc­tion, and tried to close that con­ver­sa­tion down,” said Rep. Donna Ed­wards of Mary­land, who chairs the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee’s Red to Blue pro­gram. “I think what came out of the last elec­tion cycle was time after time and Re­pub­lic­an after Re­pub­lic­an med­dling in­to this mess.”

Akin lost a very win­nable Mis­souri Sen­ate race to the Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent in 2012 after us­ing the term “le­git­im­ate rape” in a sci­en­tific­ally mis­guided re­sponse to a ques­tion about wheth­er wo­men who are raped should have ac­cess to abor­tion. In­di­ana Re­pub­lic­an Richard Mour­dock lost a win­nable race of his own while talk­ing about rape and abor­tion.

In an elec­tion cycle where Demo­crats’ ma­jor­ity is hanging by a thread, a sim­il­ar mis­take could be the dif­fer­ence.

With or without a gaffe, Demo­crats and ad­vocacy groups are con­vinced that the con­tra­cep­tion fight will help turn out a ma­jor vot­ing bloc for Demo­crats: un­mar­ried single wo­men. This group cur­rently makes up 25.6 per­cent of the vot­ing-eli­gible pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Celinda Lake and the Voter Par­ti­cip­a­tion Cen­ter. A re­cent poll from Demo­cracy Corps and Wo­men’s Voices Wo­men Vote Ac­tion Fund found that when un­mar­ried wo­men are ex­posed to “in your shoes” mes­saging, their Demo­crat­ic mar­gin in­creases by 14 points and their turnout in­creases by 10 points.

One House Re­pub­lic­an has already stumbled onto trouble while talk­ing about wo­men.

Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Ren­ee Ellmers of North Car­o­lina was quoted in the Wash­ing­ton Ex­am­iner over the week­end as say­ing dur­ing a pan­el on Re­pub­lic­ans’ mes­saging to wo­men, “Men do tend to talk about things on a much high­er level.” (Ellmers says the quote was taken out of con­text. The full tran­script and au­dio, with a link to the ini­tial art­icle, is here for those wish­ing to judge for them­selves.)

As Demo­crats try to steer the con­ver­sa­tion, re­pro­duct­ive-rights groups will be watch­ing Re­pub­lic­ans for any­thing they can use as cam­paign fod­der. EMILY’s List — a group ded­ic­ated to elect­ing pro-abor­tion-rights wo­men — is be­gin­ning a cam­paign called “GOP Sum­mer School,” which is spe­cific­ally fo­cused on high­light­ing any Re­pub­lic­an gaffes.

Hop­ing to avoid 2012 re­peats, Re­pub­lic­ans are work­ing on new strategies for the 2014 cycle, in­clud­ing cast­ing the Hobby Lobby is­sue as one of re­li­gious liberty.

“When did the Demo­crat­ic Party de­clare war on the Cath­ol­ic Church?” Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asked ahead of the vote Wed­nes­day. “I re­cog­nize that scar­ing wo­men by sug­gest­ing we’re com­ing after your birth con­trol may be good polit­ics, but elec­tion-year polit­ics should not trump re­li­gious liberty.”

GOP Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der of Ten­ness­ee ac­cused Demo­crats of try­ing to change the sub­ject from Obama­care — then pro­ceeded to give ex­amples of Amer­ic­ans ex­per­i­en­cing rate shock un­der the health law.

“There’s no reas­on to get in­to the con­tra­cep­tion is­sue, be­cause it’s really not an is­sue here,” said Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Or­rin Hatch of Utah. “[Demo­crats] are try­ing to make it an is­sue, be­cause they want abor­ti­fa­cients that Hobby Lobby isn’t provid­ing.”

“It’s a stu­pid polit­ic­al move, that’s all I can say,” Hatch con­tin­ued.

But Re­pub­lic­an strategists who were around for Akin’s “le­git­im­ate rape” com­ment in 2012 warn can­did­ates to tread care­fully on the is­sue. The GOP’s con­tin­ued meet­ings on how to con­nect with wo­men show the party is still haunted by his loss, and mem­bers have de­nounced his re­turn to the polit­ic­al scene with the re­lease of his new book.

“The fact that the Su­preme Court made the de­cision — Re­pub­lic­ans should let that stand and not en­gage in the de­bate. It will get them nowhere and take them off the mes­sage of real is­sue Amer­ic­ans are con­cerned about,” said Ron Bon­jean, a GOP strategist and former spokes­man for House and Sen­ate lead­er­ship. “I think Re­pub­lic­ans saw what happened with Todd Akin — it was a stu­pid and bad cam­paign strategy. It would be polit­ic­al mal­prac­tice for Re­pub­lic­ans to en­gage with that kind of con­ver­sa­tion.”

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