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As some Republicans close to the anti-tax Tea Party movement rally around Todd Akin’s U.S. Senate bid in Missouri, they are widening a divide in the party that may hobble Republicans’ efforts to take control of the Senate.
Presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove cut off support to Akin after his Aug. 19 assertion that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and former presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum backed Akin last week as he rejected party leaders’ call to quit the race.
DeMint, Gingrich and Santorum say an Akin victory in Missouri is central to Republicans’ goal of winning a Senate majority, while other Republicans worry that supporting him would hurt party members running for Congress. Democrats control the Senate 53-47.
“What you are seeing reflects some of the ideological division within the Republican party between the center right and the far right,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Akin’s comment about rape was a political gift to his Democratic opponent, first-term Senator Claire McCaskill, 59, who had been running behind him in polls. Romney and other Republican leaders urged Akin to end his candidacy. He refused, and Sept. 25 was the last day Akin could have his name removed from the Nov. 6 ballot.
“There are maybe some people in party leadership that I wasn’t their first choice, but that’s OK,” Akin told reporters Sept. 28 in Kansas City during a statewide bus tour. Missouri voters “entrusted me with the job to replace Claire McCaskill, and we’re going about that full speed ahead,” said Akin, 65, a six-term congressman.
Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican, called for Akin to step aside Aug. 21 yet endorsed him last week. Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday, Blunt said the race had “largely become a debate about the majority in the Senate.”
“Frankly, I think that anybody else would have been a candidate that clearly would have won, and Todd very well may win,” Blunt said.
McCaskill, earlier rated as one of the most vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election this year, seized on Akin’s comments on rape. On MSNBC Sept. 28, she said Akin would be part of the “fringe caucus that wants to convince everyone that the whole issue is that government is the enemy.”
She moved ahead of Akin in polls although the race tightened since then. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Mason-Dixon poll conducted Aug. 22-23 gave McCaskill a nine percentage-point lead. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted Aug. 28-29 showed the race was virtually tied, with Akin trailing by one percentage point.
“We’re beginning a new chapter of the campaign and it’s going to take a couple of weeks to see whether Akin can withstand the Democratic attacks,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. If polls show the race is close, “you will see some Republican outside groups come in and try to win this for their side.”
In campaign speeches, McCaskill says Akin would work to privatize Social Security and Medicare and to abolish the minimum wage and government-backed student loans.
Last week, as the deadline for Akin to withdraw from the ballot expired, McCaskill’s campaign began airing a television ad citing him “in his own words.”
It quotes Akin as having said about Social Security in March 2011: “I don’t like it.” The ad concludes with his “legitimate rape” remark and asks, “What will he say next?”
Emily’s List, a political action committee focused on electing women candidates, began airing an ad last week that includes a clip of Akin’s comment on rape and says he is “wrong for Missouri.”
Ken Warren, an independent pollster and political science professor at Saint Louis University, said McCaskill waited to ramp up her attack on Akin. “She wanted him to stay in the race because he’s a wounded candidate,” he said.
Akin drew fresh criticism from Democrats last week when he compared his Sept. 21 debate with McCaskill to her 2006 campaign against Republican Senator Jim Talent. She was more “ladylike” in 2006, Akin said.
Akin was “at it again with another comment that’s demeaning to women and offensive to all,” said Washington Senator Patty Murray, who leads Senate Democrats’ campaign. McCaskill told the Associated Press Sept. 28 she was “polite and calm” during the debate and described Akin’s comment as “kind of a head scratcher.”
McCaskill held no public events last week and her campaign declined requests to make her available for comment.
Akin was trailed by groups of women protesters last week as he toured Missouri. About a dozen protesters -- many wearing pink Planned Parenthood Action Fund shirts that said “Women are Watching” -- chanted “Akin is mistaken” after he spoke to reporters in the state Capitol rotunda in Jefferson City.
Still, female Akin supporters who attended his campaign events said they were frustrated with national Republicans’ rush to disavow his comment on rape.
“His own party threw him under the bus,” said Julie Thomas, a 35-year-old Lake of the Ozarks resident who has helped organize Women for Akin rallies in Jefferson City. “This is a man who has unparalleled character in the political arena, and to see the whole world try to take him down like they did, it just bothers me.”
Asked by reporters whether his comments might alienate women voters, Akin said he had “a regular army of women” campaigning for him. He said he was “very proud of them all.”
Akin faces a financing shortage. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group that Rove helped create, have said they won’t spend money on the contest with him as the nominee. Though the NRSC endorsed Akin Sept. 26, it didn’t offer a financial contribution.
In a 14-day period ending Sept. 24, McCaskill ran more than six times as many television ads as Akin. Her campaign had 2,124 ads compared with 337 for Akin, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks campaign advertising.
Akin received a pledge of financial assistance from the Senate Conservatives Fund, a DeMint-led political action committee that helped elect Tea-Party-backed senators in 2010. The group set an initial goal of raising $100,000 for Akin’s campaign by Sept. 30.
“The challenge for Akin now is fundraising,” Matt Hoskins, the group’s executive director, wrote in an e-mail to its supporters. “Party leaders in Washington have made it clear that they won’t help him regardless of how close the race is.”
Warren, the Saint Louis University professor, said with some Republicans coming back to his corner, Akin might get enough money to “become a viable candidate again.”
When he discusses at campaign events his decision to stay in the race, Akin cites voters who supported him in his Aug. 7 primary win and criticizes McCaskill’s support for President Barack Obama’s 2010 health-care law and the 2009 economic stimulus package.
In his stump speeches, Akin points to Missouri voters’ almost 3-to-1 support in an August 2010 non-binding referendum for repealing the health-care law’s requirement to buy insurance.
He also speaks of his religious faith. He told supporters at a Sept. 25 rally in heavily Democratic St. Louis that there was a question “more fundamental” than whether he wins.
“And that is: What’s the right thing to do?” Akin said. “There is an amazing correlation. When you do the right thing, you end up winning anyway.”
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