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Government, Politics & Issues

The chiefs vs. the base: How Akin's remarks sparked a national controversy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2012 - To call U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s fall from favor dramatic would be an understatement.

Roughly two weeks ago, the Wildwood Republican wrapped up a seemingly improbable victory in a closely watched Republican scramble to take on U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. Akin initally was gauged the odds-on favorite to knock off McCaskill, a first-term Democrat struggling in the polls.

But now Akin has become something of a pariah, with prominent national and state Republicans lambasting the six-term lawmaker for suggesting that women could “shut down” pregnancies after a “legitimate rape.”

Even U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the presumptive GOP vice presidential nominee, has personally telephoned Akin and called for him to step down.

Such calls for him to quit have escalated since Akin appeared on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's radio show to apologize for his choice of words, although Akin has stuck by his position in opposition to abortions in cases of rape.

Crossroads GPS, the SuperPAC run by former Bush advisor Karl Rove, announced that it has cancelled a TV ad buy -- after spending more than $4 million on anti-McCaskill ads -- while the National Republican Senatorial Committee also declared it would cut off any financial help to Akin.

As the drumbeat for Akin's departure became louder and more insistent, the buzz has erupted over which candidate would replace Akin. The names being tossed around include former Sen. Jim Talent (who lost to McCaskill in 2006), state auditor Tom Schweich and U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth. Talent told news outlets late Monday he's not interested.

Some allies of the two who lost to Akin in the primary -- former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and St. Louis businessman John Brunner -- contend they also should be considered, exhibiting some behind-the-scenes resentment over the new names being bandied about.

But throughout the day and into Monday evening, Akin remained defiant, insisting he was in the race to stay. The congressman's campaign spokesman said that allies have flooded him with words of encouragement. "We have gotten calls and emails and internet traffic that has been highly supportive of the congressman staying in the race,'' spokesman Ryan Hite said.

Akin even sent out a fundraising appeal late Monday declaring, “I’m in this to the end.”

“The people from Missouri who elected me know I’m not perfect. They don’t make perfect people. We all make mistakes,” Akin wrote. "When you make a mistake you to tell people you’re sorry, you don’t try and hide it. I made a mistake and I’m sorry. I have just begun to fight and I’m in this race to the end!”

After asking for $3 for “continued support of his campaign,” Akin continued: “Liberals and pundits want to write me off and hand this Senate seat back to Claire. I need your help to respond.”

Akin also may have gotten a boost from a new poll by Public Policy Polling, generally deemed Democratic-leaning, that showed him neck and neck with McCaskil, despite the controversy.

(Start of update) And Akin released a television ad on Tuesday morning aimed at apologizing for the controversy. Entitled "Forgiveness," Akin says in the ad that he "used the wrong words in the wrong way and for that I apologize.

"Fact is, rape can lead to pregnancy," Akin said. "The truth is rape has many victims. The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold." (End update)

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said he believes that Akin will stick by his pledge and stay in the contest until the end.

“I’m not sure why he would withdraw,” Robertson said. “He’s a very committed person. He’s committed to his ideas. And I don’t see why he would want to withdraw. He slogged his way through a tough primary and won it, and feels he represents high ideals. It would be an act of disloyalty to those values to drop out of the race.”

Such concerns are bubbling up among some Republican activists, who warn privately that the state party's base of social conservatives -- who generally line up with Akin -- could mutiny if it appears that their choice is being unfairly forced out.

Missouri Right to Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group, has issued a statement in support of Akin, praising his "defense of the life of an innocent unborn child conceived by rape. We also support his statement of compassion and support for victims of sexual assault. "

The Missouri Republican Assembly, a staunchly conservative group, also Tweeted its call for Akin to stand pat.

Controversy catches up with Akin

Akin’s remarks to KTVI’s Charles Jaco about "legitimate rape" followed a raft of provocative statements on the heels of his primary victory.

He had supported banning the morning-after pill and ending the federal government's involvement in school lunch programs. He was even mocked on the Colbert Report for suggesting that the direct election of senators, the 17th Amendment, should be repealed.

But Akin’s “legitimate rape” remark was particularly jarring, although it does reflect the views of some abortion opponents, going back decades.

For starters, Akin's assertion — that pregnancies rarely result from rape and that the female body could "shut down" a pregnancy — has been roundly condemned by medical experts as inaccurate. The phrase “legitimate rape” also was seen as insensitive to rape victims and their loved ones, by implying that some rapes were "illegitimate."

“With the ‘legitimate rape’ comment, he crossed into territory that no one should cross into,” said George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University. “He lost the ability to control or explain that before everybody else jumped in.”

[Even Akin’s explanation on Huckabee's show that he meant to say “forcible rape” drew attention to the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act.” Slate political writer Dave Weigel noted that the bill – which Akin cosponsored along with GOP vice presidential nominee Ryan – was criticized for aiming to deny Medicaid funding for abortions in the cases of statutory rape.]

Another reason that Robertson said the remark got national attention – besides the subject matter – was that the Missouri Senate is seen as a crucial building block for Republicans to retake the U.S. Senate.

“It’s a closely watched race,” Robertson said. “Akin had an advantage, I think everybody felt that way out of the primary – and the polls suggested that initially. This looks like a statement that has no upside for Akin, but has a lot of downside among single women, young people and moderate suburbanites.”

In fact, that point was brought up during Monday's NBC Nightly News by the network’s chief political correspondent Chuck Todd. After NBC anchor Brian Williams asked why the remark was getting so much national attention, Todd responded that it was the combination of the substance of the remark and an impending Tuesday deadline for Akin to withdraw.

But Todd also said the remarks play into a Democratic narrative that Republican are insensitive to female voters.

“President (Barack) Obama has been running ads attacking Romney on issues of access to contraception, the funding of Planned Parenthood,” Todd said. “There’s already a wide gender gap. They didn’t want it to get worse.”

Connor noted that the substance of Akin's “message” – that he’s opposed to abortion even in the case of rape – hasn’t changed. In fact, he reiterated that stance – which is not held by some Republicans generally opposed to abortion – in his Sunday statement. And that, he said, could have national ramifications.

“He expressed his opinion in a way that’s gotten national attention and is offensive to many, even within his own party,” Connor said. “But the substance of his opposition to abortion is exactly today as it was yesterday and so on. And this is something that I expect his constituents have supported him for. He is vehemently anti-abortion, so much more so than his colleagues.”

Akin on his own

In some ways, Akin’s position as political outsider is not unusual.

Back in 2000, Akin was involved in a crowded primary to replace then-U.S. Rep. Jim Talent. While many in that local political establishment gravitated toward candidates such as former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary or state Sen. Franc Flotron, R-Chesterfield, adamant grassroots supporters were the ones who fueled Akin’s campaign, which was run by members of his family.

The result: Akin won the primary on a rainy Election Day by 56 votes.

During his U.S. Senate bid, Akin went against the grain by firing his initial staff of professional political operatives and instead having his son manage his campaign. Brunner and Steelman hired prominent political operatives from across the state and nation. [Steelman's son did played a major role in her campaign, but so did House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville.]

And once again, Akin won without the GOP establishment's help – this time by a larger margin.

Because of this, notable local and national Republicans may have less leverage to pressure Akin to withdraw because he won the primary without their blessing or support. And since many political operatives were working for other candidates, it’s not surprising that they would be reticent about coming to Akin’s defense -- and he would less than receptive to their views.

Akin released a television ad entitled "Forgiveness" on Tuesday.

That’s especially the case since there’s still time for Missouri Republican leaders to replace Akin with another candidate, if he resigns by late Tuesday.

Connor and Robertson both say that Steelman and Brunner already have a strike against them, since he defeated both on Aug. 7.

“Brunner and Steelman are both losers,” Connor said. “It may be that the Republican Party can unite behind them or some other statewide candidate. But I think Steelman lost because she didn’t have the support statewide, she didn’t have the support of the Republican establishment. Brunner should have been able to win with all of that money and he still he lost. I’m not sure if that’s the candidate that I want to turn to.”

For her part, McCaskill has said she hopes Akin stay in the race. She told reporters in Jefferson County today that she still felt the contest would be competitive.

“This is a man who is sincere,” McCaskill told KWMU’s Adam Allington. “I honestly do have sympathy for him because I think there are some big people in the party that are trying to pull the rug out from underneath Missouri voters — he won his race fair and square.”

McCaskill has to be careful in what she says, since many activists in both parties believed that her best shot for re-election lies with Akin. Indeed, the attack ad that she ran against Akin before the primary was widely viewed as subtly supportive. The ads she ran against Steelman and Brunner were more negative.

And like University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, Connor said McCaskill's political prognosis isn't necessarily any better, despite Akin’s potentially game-changing remark.

“It’s not like people are going to jump onto Claire McCaskill’s bandwagon because of these comments,” Connor said. “They’re still going to run an anti-Claire, anti-Obama campaign. And as repugnant as these comments as they might be for some people, they’re still not going to vote for Claire McCaskill because she supports [abortion rights].”

Beacon political reporter Jo Mannies contributed some information for this article.

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