Not that terribly long ago, the impressive step-by-step political career of Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill looked doomed.
She’d overcome a loss in a race for governor in 2004 and in 2006 bested another Show-Me State political star, Jim Talent, to win a U.S. Senate seat. In 2008, she aligned herself with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama during the primaries. It seemed a prescient move when Obama overcame Hillary Clinton in the primaries. When Obama won the general election and the White House, McCaskill had an ear to the throne.
Fast forward to 2012: Onetime swing state Missouri had become a solidly red place where Obama was not, well, popular. The chumminess between the president and the senator was no longer a political asset.
Her seemingly slim chances at re-election rested on Republicans electing somebody too conservative even for increasingly right-of-center Missouri.
A primary campaign ad shows St. Louis-area U.S. Rep. Todd Akin in front an American flag. A narrator declares him “Missouri’s true conservative … a crusader against bigger government … (with a) pro-family agenda.”
The spot is paid for by McCaskill. Her campaign describes it as a warning to voters that Akin is too conservative, but to political cognoscenti it sounds like the Democrat is helping Akin win the primary figuring he’s the Republican she stands the best chance to beat.
Akin wins a plurality in the Republican primary to beat former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and well-heeled business executive John Brunner. Perhaps it was his alignment with the tea party movement that had delivered so many fiscal conservatives to Congress just two years before. Maybe it was endorsements from movement conservatives such as Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate. It might have been McCaskill’s ads.
The bottom line is that one of the state’s most conservative politicians lands the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, and McCaskill has her best-case scenario for the general election.
Still, she’s seen as the underdog.
Akin sits down with St. Louis television reporter Charles Jaco, who queries about whether the staunchly anti-abortion Akin can imagine instances when abortion might be appropriate. Akin says a tubal pregnancy, when the mother is threatened and the fetus is doomed, might be justification. Then he goes on:
“Well, you know, uh, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, ‘Well, how do you — how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question?’
“It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
The reaction is immediate and vehement. His use of the term “legitimate rape” and his reference to at-best dubious medical theories about the prospects of various pregnancies upset opponents and many supporters alike.
Akin backtracks almost immediately. “I misspoke in this interview, and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped or abused every year.”
But the damage is done.
A different race has emerged. Questions swirl about whether Akin will pull out. Top Republicans, all with much at stake in capturing a Senate seat in Missouri, denounce the party’s nominee.
“Todd Akin’s comments were offensive and wrong, and he should very seriously consider what course would be in the best interest of our country,” Republican presidential nominee-to-be Mitt Romney says. “Today, his fellow Missourians urged him to step aside, and I think he should accept their counsel and exit the Senate race.”
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri is joined by other state GOP brass and luminaries in a statement: “The issues at stake are too big, and this election is simply too important. The right decision is to step aside.”
Akin’s national sources of campaign money evaporate almost instantly.
Among those calling for the will of Missouri primary voters to be respected and for the politically wounded Akin to stick in the race: McCaskill. On this, she agrees with the Republican about sticking it out to the end.
The McCaskill-Akin race (or is it Akin vs. Akin?) heads down the home stretch. By now, Akin is abandoned by all but a few national Republican politicians. Meantime, a handful of other GOP candidates around the country have made comments about rape and abortion that rival Akin’s in their ability to stir outrage.
And Akin’s campaign has continued to draw attention for comments perceived as damaging to his chances in the race. He has suggested McCaskill behaved less “ladylike” in a debate than he expected. He’s said, “She goes to Washington, D.C., it’s a little bit like one of those dogs, you know, ‘fetch.’ ”
And an aide tweets to say that if McCaskill “were a dog, she’d be a ‘Bullshitsu.’ ”
Some prominent Republicans return to his side, former House speaker and onetime presidential candidate Newt Gingrich among them, and Akin’s candidacy rallies. McCaskill takes a break from her campaign to see to her ailing mother. And a Star poll shows the race narrowing, with the incumbent leading by just a few points in a state looking ever more Republican.