Rape remark defined Akin's campaign, McCaskill win

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 ~ Updated 3:02 PM

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri congressman Todd Akin called it his "six-second mistake." As it turns out, his remark about "legitimate rape" was more than enough to sink his U.S. Senate campaign.

Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill notched a resounding victory over her Republican challenger in Tuesday's election, achieving the largest winning margin for a Missouri Senate race in 18 years despite entering the 2012 campaign as a self-described underdog.

In hindsight, however, the outcome seemed almost inevitable.

From the moment Akin won the Republican primary -- even before then, in fact -- McCaskill had been framing a race in which she would appear reasonable and her opponent extreme. She ran an effective advertising campaign financed by a considerable cash advantage over Akin. And she combined it with a door-knocking, phone-calling blitz that McCaskill says reached millions of homes.

"I honestly believe that if it hadn't been for that comment, there would have been another," McCaskill said in a post-election interview with The Associated Press. "Yes, the comment on 'legitimate rape' dominated, but had he not said that, there was a lot of other material to work with."

McCaskill's strategy to portray Akin as extreme was successful because she could cite the "legitimate rape" remark as the topper in a series of statements and positions taken by Akin. She highlighted his opposition to federally issued student loans, airing video of Akin describing how the loan program was an example of the government's "stage three cancer of socialism." Then, too, there was Akin's opposition to the federal's government's role in setting the minimum wage, funding the school lunch program and establishing a national sex offender registry. McCaskill's campaign distributed a daily count-down email entitled: "35 Days, 35 Ways Todd Akin is Too Extreme for Missouri."

Akin countered that it was McCaskill who was too extreme for Missouri, particularly citing her support for President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus act and 2010 health care law -- the latter of which had been symbolically rejected by Missourians in a 2010 ballot measure. But Akin's message appeared to get drowned out by the reverberation from his own words.

During an interview taped Aug. 17 at St. Louis television station KTVI, Akin was asked whether abortion should be legal for women who have been raped.

"From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," Akin said, referring to pregnancy in rapes. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

The next day, Akin joined the rest of Missouri's Republican ticket for statewide offices on a campaign swing to southwest Missouri, never anticipating the firestorm to come when the interview aired on Aug. 19. Social media sites quickly lit up with chatter. Soon Akin was being denounced and ridiculed nationwide. Top Republicans, including GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, urged him to quit the race. And millions of dollars of planned advertising evaporated almost overnight from deep-pocketed groups that typically back Republicans.

"Akin was ahead when he was more of a theoretical candidate, right after the primary," said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "He became virtually toxic after the legitimate rape comment. ...

"It was the first thing Missouri voters knew about Akin, and it was something they didn't like," Robertson added.

An exit poll conducted for the AP showed many voters were turned off by Akin's remark. Nearly two-thirds of voters said that, at the very least, they gave the comment some consideration in the voting booth -- and those who did overwhelmingly sided with McCaskill by a rate of almost three to one. Close to 70 percent of women said Akin's remark about rape and abortion was important to their decision, and Akin couldn't get the majority of men to look past that race-turning moment, either.

"The man is not even in reality," state worker Cindy King said after casting a ballot for McCaskill in Jefferson City.

Akin repeatedly apologized for his remark and acknowledged he was wrong about rape victims having biological defenses against pregnancy. But McCaskill used the rape remark as a window into what she described as Akin's out-of-the-mainstream beliefs.

"I think a lot of Missourians who were vaguely aware of him were probably surprised by just how conservative he was," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "McCaskill might have been able to pull it out even if he had not had that one particular mistake, but that played right into her hands."

Akin's remark may also have affected other Republican candidates. In some states, Democrats sought to link their Republican opponents to Akin. In Missouri, the other statewide GOP candidates generally kept a silent distance from Akin.

After conceding defeat to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, Republican gubernatorial challenger Dave Spence cited the media storm spawned by Akin's remarks "as one of the biggest influences on our race."

"There are only so many headlines in our state, and I think that race took all of them," Spence told the AP. As a result, Spence said, Nixon "was able to duck debates, not answer any questions and play hide and seek with Missouri voters."

In the closing days before the election, Spence packed most of the statewide GOP candidates into his RV for a cross-state campaign swing. Akin was not among them. The state Republican Party said Akin had been invited but chose to do his own thing. On election night, Missouri's prominent Republican candidates each held separate watch parties.

Akin has shied away from the media spotlight after his defeat -- just as he did in the days immediately following his "legitimate rape" remark.

"Things don't always turn out the way you think they're going to," Akin said to his supporters while conceding defeat. "But I also think that in the circumstances we've all been through, that it's particularly appropriate to thank God, who makes no mistakes and who is much wiser than we are."

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