Of those lonely souls deemed untouchable in polite political circles, the persona non grata of the year has to be Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri. So swift and thorough was Akin’s shunning by his fellow Republicans after his infamous midsummer gaffe—“legitimate rape,” he told a TV interviewer, rarely results in pregnancy because a woman’s body can shut down and prevent conception—that the smart money had Akin out of the race by Labor Day.
Akin was publicly urged to go away by his party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, and by the elder statesmen of the Missouri GOP. Akin’s colleague in the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, newly named as Romney’s running mate, personally telephoned Akin, asking him to quit the race for the good of the party—which desperately needs a win in Missouri to have any hope of retaking the Senate. Worse, for a politician, the big money from Washington was cut off when the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (along with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC) decided that Akin couldn’t win. And Akin found no solace in the rightward commentariat. Ann Coulter, whose lacerating barbs are usually directed at liberals, called Akin a “selfish swine” for not surrendering.
Two months later, Akin bears the aspect of a wounded animal, cautious and still plainly spooked by the experience. “The amount of pressure on me,” he says, “was incredible.”
Yet less than a month before Election Day, Akin not only remains the Republican candidate to unseat Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, but is actually within striking distance of what could be the election season’s most stunning victory. Though badly outspent by McCaskill, Akin is close enough in the polls that Real Clear Politics counts the race a tossup. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)—who’d been among those urging Akin to quit—now judges that “he very well may win.”
Once the late-September deadline for replacing Akin on the ballot passed, the Republican establishment seemed to realize that, like it or not (and mostly, it did not), Akin suddenly represented the party’s best chance for winning the Senate. There have been hints that big money may start flowing from the national party to Missouri—though Akin is not counting on it (“My guess is, some will, and some won’t”).
But even if Akin does ultimately get last-minute assistance from the national GOP, he will still, should he win, owe very little to his party’s establishment. That would be a rather unusual situation for a freshman senator. And it could allow him to become a uniquely powerful proponent for the Tea Party’s agenda on Capitol Hill—not to mention a serious headache for the Senate’s GOP leadership. “What I’ve found in politics is a simple thing: pretty soon there’s gonna be a bill, and they’re gonna want someone to vote for their bill, or against some other bill,” says Akin. “And they’ll be thinking, ‘Man, we’re a vote short, what are we gonna do? You mean we’re gonna have to go talk to him?’ Well, it depends on whether or not they want to win.”
Todd Akin is the sort of politician whose so-called gaffes are not very distant from his firmly held convictions. An engineer by training, and the scion of a family that owned steel mills for three generations, Akin entered politics after he and his wife, Lulli (whom he met when both were in IBM’s training program), were born again in a Bible Study Fellowship program. Newly saved, Akin left his family’s mill and entered seminary but decided that God’s calling for him was politics.
“God’s the boss,” he says, and that attitude has defined his political career, both in state politics and in Washington. He is fiercely pro-life (in which circles he encountered the medical literature, widely discredited, about rape and pregnancy), and a staunch small-government conservative. Among the areas he’d like to see the feds butt out of are Medicare (unconstitutional), federal student loans (socialism), and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (“will make the Titanic wreck look small”).
Even before his fateful television interview in August, Akin’s race promised to be the strangest Senate contest in the country. During the Republican primary, McCaskill shrewdly paid for and ran three TV advertisements, ostensibly against Akin, warning that he was “The MOST conservative congressman in Missouri”—ads that, of course, helped Akin make his case to the state’s conservative primary voters. In surmising that Akin would prove the weakest of the three Republicans in the running, McCaskill was hardly alone. Among those who made a similar calculation was Sarah Palin, whose endorsement is prized by conservatives, and which Akin had sought. Yet after discussion between the Palin and Akin camps, Palin’s endorsement went to another candidate, Sarah Steelman (Akin was, at the time, a distant third in the polls).
In the wake of his comments about rape, Akin has sought to cast his campaign as a fight between average conservatives and the Republican elite. And indeed, his candidacy clearly illuminates the ongoing tension between these groups—which has been the subtext of Republican politics for the last two election cycles. “It seemed like the people who were the political who’s who were all saying, ‘Get out,’?” Akin says. “And an awful lot of the grassroots people were saying, ‘Stay in.’?”
Two of the first politicians to leap to Akin’s defense were, not surprisingly, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, each of whom carried the flag of the Tea Party grassroots during the Republican primaries. Even more telling has been the support from Sen. Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, the scourge of party deans, whose rogue political-action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, regularly aids the sort of candidates—hardline conservatives disinclined to compromise—that the establishment disdains.
When Akin made clear he was staying in the race, DeMint’s group polled its members, more than 90 percent of whom urged that the SCF lend support to Akin’s campaign. The group set an early fundraising goal of $100,000—which was met within 24 hours, the most the SCF has ever raised so quickly. The group then set another goal for Akin, $250,000, and that too was quickly passed. The target now is $325,000—a critical supplement to the $1 million or so that the Akin campaign claims it has raised online on its own.
“It tells me that conservatives understand how important this race is,” says SCF’s executive director, Matt Hoskin. “It tells me that they want to elect conservatives to the Senate. It tells me that they don’t like the way the party’s establishment has treated the congressman.”
Of course, if Akin’s hard-right views make him appealing to anti-establishment Republicans, they are also a potential boon to McCaskill. Heading into the last weeks of the campaign, she has been hitting Akin with ads featuring victims of rape who are appalled by Akin’s wrong-headedness on the matter. There is not much Akin can do on that front but try to change the subject.
Yet McCaskill, too, has real vulnerabilities, one of which is her financial status. She is one of the wealthiest members of the Senate, owing largely to several hundred low-income housing businesses associated with her husband, which, according to an Associated Press study, have received $40 million in federal subsidies since McCaskill has been in the Senate. Akin accuses McCaskill of a conflict of interest (some of the stimulus money made its way into the businesses). McCaskill spokesperson Caitlin Legacki says that “her finances are separate from her husband’s, so she has no interest in any of these businesses,” and suggests that Akin’s campaign “is in a pretty desperate place right now” in making its charges.
But McCaskill’s greater vulnerability may be the perception that she is a “national” Democrat in a state that is turning ever more rightward. Missouri has a strong Democratic tradition, and has long been a key swing state in national elections; Obama lost narrowly there in 2008. But the state has now turned so emphatically against Obama that Democrats are not seriously contesting it this year. When Obamacare (which McCaskill supported) was put to a referendum in Missouri, 71 percent of the voters expressed their opposition. McCaskill also has an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association—a group with real heft in the state—and Akin has the NRA’s endorsement. (“One NRA postcard,” notes Gingrich, “offsets a lot of TV.”)
McCaskill has, to be sure, repeatedly declared herself a moderate (noting that her votes rank squarely in the Senate’s middle), and she avoided the Democratic convention that renominated Obama. Still, she was such an ardent, and early, supporter of Candidate Obama in 2008 that the association may be indelible.
Many Missouri residents, moreover, don’t welcome the idea of the national media narrative influencing their choice of U.S. senator. Some of Akin’s backers seem at least as passionate in their opposition to the press as they are in their support for Akin. “This is a test of whether Akin has a better sense for the people of Missouri than the liberal media has,” says Bob Gioia, who attended an Akin event in St. Louis, “and I think he might have.”
Democrats and the press have drawn freely from the Akin store of statements and positions they deem inappropriate, but Akin’s supporters see principled conservatism where his critics see missteps. “It’s a continuing opportunity for the secular media to be shocked by somebody that believes,” says Gingrich, who came to Akin’s side for a fundraiser even before his candidacy became official. “And it’s a continuing opportunity for the liberal media to be shocked by somebody that is a conservative. This wouldn’t work in Massachusetts. But in Missouri, there’s a pretty large resonating faction. Suddenly, it becomes not just a traditional campaign but a fundamental cultural war. You are reminded that there are some Republicans who are on the wrong side of the war.”
Those Republicans—among them, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee chair John Cornyn, both of whom distanced themselves from Akin back in August—could be in a tricky spot if Akin triumphs in November. Such an outcome would show that it’s possible to win a hotly contested election without much help from the GOP establishment. And it would undoubtedly embolden other Tea Party senators, from DeMint to Rand Paul of Kentucky, to step up their criticism, or even obstruction, of the party leadership.
For Akin himself, meanwhile, victory would be another giant leap in his political version of Pilgrim’s Progress. “If you gave me my fondest dream,” he says, “it would be the beginning of a revival, where people in America wake up to who we are, and we push off the chains of the government and reestablish America, based on the principles of our family. That would be my favorite wish.”