Akin's ‘six-second mistake' was pivotal

Thursday, November 8, 2012
U.S. Rep.Todd Akin, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks Friday, Sept. 14, 2012 at a meeting of the Cape Girardeau County Republican Women's Club. (Fred Lynch)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Missouri congressman Todd Akin called it his "six-second mistake." But his brief remark about "legitimate rape" was more than enough to sink his U.S. Senate campaign.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill defeated her Republican challenger with nearly 55 percent of the vote to Akin's 39 percent in Tuesday's election. It was the largest margin of victory in a Missouri Senate race since 1994.

Exit polls showed many voters took into consideration Akin's mid-August remark that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in what he called "legitimate rape." Though he apologized, Akin's campaign never recovered.

Political scientist Dave Robertson, who teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says many voters were unfamiliar with Akin before the remark, and it defined him in a negative way.

McCaskill's victory preserved an important Senate seat for Democrats -- an outcome that had once seemed unlikely because of McCaskill's close ties to President Barack Obama, who narrowly lost Missouri in 2008 and was soundly defeated in the state Tuesday by Republican challenger Mitt Romney. McCaskill easily carried Missouri's Democratic-leaning urban areas, but also fared well in the suburbs and many rural counties that typically favor Republicans.

As the 2012 campaign began, McCaskill, 59, cast herself as the underdog. Akin, 65, immediately became the favorite after winning an Aug. 7 Republican primary. But that changed when he was asked in an Aug. 19 TV interview whether abortion should be legal for women who have been raped.

He responded: "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."

Although Akin apologized, his comments went viral on the Internet. He was widely denounced and ridiculed, and Romney joined other top national Republicans in urging Akin to quit the race. Instead, he forged ahead despite losing millions of dollars of planned advertising support from Republican-leaning groups.

Akin, who had publicly thanked God for hearing the prayers of his supporters in the primary, also described his loss Tuesday as God's will.

"Things don't always turn out the way you think they're going to," Akin told his supporters. "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. So I say, `To God alone be the honor and the glory, regardless of how he decides to organize history."'

Some of the party's top leaders remained bitter that Akin did not abandon the race, which would have let Missouri Republicans pick a replacement.

"I just want to say a quick thank you to @ToddAkin for helping us lose the senate," Jason Whitman, the national Republican policy chairman, tweeted Tuesday night.

Akin's supporters were more likely to forgive his remark.

"I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps he misspoke, and I believe in his ultimate beliefs -- the right to life and the just the general attitude of the Republican Party," said Erica White, 39, a Jefferson City nurse who voted for Akin.

Akin eventually regained support from some Republicans -- including former presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee -- and got financial backing from several conservative interest groups, including a $1 million ad buy from the Now or Never Political Action Committee.

But McCaskill generally enjoyed a financial advantage throughout the campaign. She pounded Akin with TV ads featuring Akin's "legitimate rape" remark and video of Romney denouncing him.

She also cast Akin as extreme by highlighting his opposition to the federal government's role in issuing student loans and setting a minimum wage,.

Even before the Republican primary, McCaskill seemed to prefer to run against Akin. She took the unusual step of running TV advertisements against her three potential Republican opponents. The ad about Akin highlighted positions appealing to Republican primary voters. It called Akin a "crusader against bigger government" who promotes a "pro-family agenda," and it ended with the claim that Akin "is just too conservative."

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