Social issues are once again front and center in Missouri's elections
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 2, 2012 - Even if Republican U.S. Senate nominee Todd Akin hadn’t uttered those immortal words “legitimate rape,” the social issues of guns, gays, God and abortion would still be under the surface of Missouri’s contests this fall.
“The Democratic Party is trying to turn the country into Sodom and Gomorrah,” said Jerry Wilson, a Republican from Festus, as he walked into an event for Akin last week in De Soto. “Abortion is first-degree murder, according to the Bible.”
One of Akin’s top supporters, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has launched an election-eve TV ad campaign that doesn’t mention any candidates but calls for voters to protect Christians’ “sacred rights” – such as traditional marriage and “the right to life from conception to natural death” – and vote accordingly.
Their votes will be “recorded in eternity,” says Huckabee, who narrates the ad.
Akin is headlining a “Family Values Tour’’ on Saturday across the state that will highlight – along with economic issues – Akin’s support for the "Second Amendment, pro-life, traditional families,” a spokesman said.
Democrats also are putting the spotlight on Akin, nationally as well as in Missouri. Allies of President Barack Obama are linking Akin with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and contending that both men will curb women’s rights and seek to outlaw abortion.
Akin’s rival in Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is focusing on a variety of his stances, economic and social. The latter includes his opposition to abortion in cases of rape and his call for outlawing emergency contraception, which can prevent pregnancy if taken within a few days of unprotected sex.
In fact, McCaskill has been more public than most Missouri statewide Democratic candidates when it comes to highlighting her support for reproductive rights, especially in cases of rape. And her allies believe that has helped the senator attract supporters, money and votes.
Sandy Marsh of University City was already a McCaskill supporter, but she says that Akin’s comments have propelled her to get more involved and to be more outspoken.
“I feel there’s an erosion in attitudes about women,” Marsh said last weekend, after attending a McCaskill event that featured a rape survivor. “In my world, these are the issues being talked about more than the economy.”
Social issues long have been an undercurrent in Missouri politics. But this year, arguably because of Akin’s comments, reproductive rights have overshadowed other social issues, such as guns, that often leak into the state’s political contests.
Missouri at center of abortion debate
For decades, Missouri has been at the center of the national debate over reproductive rights, hailing back to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized most abortions. Abortion, contraception and stem-cell research have sparked annual battles in the Missouri General Assembly, where Republicans have ruled for a decade.
This year’s election is no different – other than the activities of both sides may be more public.
Missouri Right to Life, the state’s most active anti-abortion group, has for decades blanketed church parking lots and other locales with its fliers that identify which candidates are adequately “pro-life” and which ones are not. This year is no different.
Those on the list include Akin and Dave Spence, the Republican nominee for governor. Several other statewide GOP hopefuls aren’t supported because they have cast votes that Right to Life considers to be in support of embryonic stem-cell research, which the group opposes.
Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region’s political arm also is monitoring Tuesday’s election and has its own list of endorsements. But Planned Parenthood locally has been primarily focused, at least publicly, on galvanizing backers to show up at the polls.
The national arm of Planned Parenthood is, however, spotlighting Akin as it targets Romney, who previously has said he’ll act to cut off any federal family-planning funds to Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America are both linking Akin to Romney as threats to the future of legalized abortion in the United States.
Akin also has come under fire over his arrests in the 1980s during anti-abortion protests, although allies say privately that the publicity over the arrests may have made him even more popular among his social-conservative base.
(Update) The national RightWing Watch web site attracted buzz late Friday when it disclosed that police records in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County show that Akin was arrested at least eight times in the 1980s during anti-abortion protests, far more than previously disclosed. He was never charged with any crime after any of the arrests. (End of update)
In Missouri’s contest for lieutenant governor, Republican incumbent Peter Kinder is running a TV ad that jabs Democrat Susan Montee because she attended a gay-pride parade.
A.J. Bockelman – head of PROMO, the state’s most prominent gay-rights group – said, “It is disappointing in this day and age that appearing at a Pride event is still viewed by some as a negative thing. Susan Montee has repeatedly stood up in support of the LGBT community and stands strongly behind that position.”
Some of Kinder's critics wonder if the ad isn’t intended to counter the jabs that Kinder has weathered for a year over his acquaintance with a former stripper. Kinder isn’t commenting.
Still, Bockelman and others don’t see gay rights as the marquee issue that it was in 2004, when Missouri voters went to the polls in large numbers to bar same-sex marriage. More voters on both sides, he said, see such campaign attacks as “scare tactics.”
And what about guns? Since the mid-1990s, battles over gun rights often have infused Missouri statewide contests. In the 2002 contest for U.S. Senate, for example, then-Democratic incumbent Jean Carnahan went skeet shooting – officially to display her longstanding shooting skills but unofficially to curb GOP assertions that she was anti-gun.
Carnahan proved an able skeet shooter but still lost her contest with Republican Jim Talent.
This year, Akin has promoted his “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, which has given a poor grade to McCaskill. She has said little on the issue, other than to emphasize that she’s not anti-gun.
Akin critics have sought to publicize his acquaintance in the 1990s with Tim Dreste, a former GOP activist who was active in the militia and anti-abortion movements. Dreste was known for sporting a hat covered with shotgun shells during anti-abortion protests. Akin was a donor to Dreste's unsuccessful bid for the General Assembly in the early 1990s.
But the gun issue appears to be DOA in Missouri’s contest for governor, where Republican Dave Spence is talking about jobs, not firearms.
Democratic incumbent Jay Nixon has made a point for years of showing up in hunting gear, having his picture taken after bagging deer and – more recently – shooting the maximum allowed number of doves on the first day of dove season.
Although deer hunting season doesn’t start until after Election Day, the governor stopped by a hunting-supply firm on Thursday to “encourage local deer hunters to donate venison through the Share the Harvest” program.
On Saturday, Nixon is hosting a dinner in Kirksville for the families of young hunters who participate in the first day of Missouri’s youth deer season.
The GOP is attacking Nixon on several fronts, including his support for reproductive rights. But not about guns.