A failed effort by the Republican hierarchy to drive U.S. Senate nominee Todd Akin out of the Missouri race underscores the party’s weakness with women voters that might cost it the White House and control of Congress.
Akin’s misstep, saying on Aug. 19 that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy, risks turning the election into one about women’s reproductive rights -- and bad medical guidance. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is determined to focus on President Barack Obama’s economic stewardship.
The chorus of voices urging Akin to drop out of the race includes Romney, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and four former Republican Missouri senators. That’s “pretty unprecedented,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia Republican congressman. This morning, Akin said on NBC’s “Today Show” that Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, called him to make a personal plea that he quit the race.
“They don’t want this rubbing off on Romney,” Davis said. If the election turns on abortion rights, birth control and similar issues, “you lose moderates, young people and others who could have voted with you.”
While the attempt to banish Akin was intended to reassure women, the draft of the Republican Party platform created a fresh target for Democrats. The document that will be voted on at the Aug. 27 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, supports a constitutional amendment banning abortions with no exception for terminating pregnancies caused by rape.
The Akin controversy is already posing a challenge for the Republican presidential ticket. In Congress, Ryan cosponsored last year with Akin two measures restricting the definition of rape.
During his first interview in Pennsylvania, held yesterday with the Pittsburgh TV station KDKA, Ryan was asked to defend his support for legislative language that distinguished between rape and forcible rape.
“That forcible rape language meant nothing to you at the time?” the interviewer prodded Ryan. “Rape is rape and there’s no splitting hairs over rape,” the congressman replied.
Beyond the presidential contest, Akin’s remarks reverberated in his race against Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year. Her seat is a critical building block in Republican plans to win a Senate majority.
Republicans need to pick up three seats to win control of the Senate if Romney wins, as the vice president casts tie-breaking votes in the chamber. If Obama wins, they need four.
If McCaskill wins another term in Missouri, Republicans would have to hold onto seats they now control in states where the Senate races appear tight, including Massachusetts, Nevada, Indiana and Arizona.
“If we can’t pick up” a seat in a state like Missouri, “it’s going to be tough,” Davis said.
In Missouri, Akin’s remarks are getting a lot of attention from voters.
“His ego’s way out of whack,” said Dan Doerer, 66, a Republican and retired engineer from Town and Country, Missouri. “The idea that you’d say something like that so lightly bothers me and it makes me wonder what else he’d do in the clinch. It’s crazy.”
Akin, 65, can still exit the race if he petitions a court by Sept. 25, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
“We may have not seen the last development in this race,” he said.
Akin, who has apologized for his remarks in interviews, e-mails and a television ad, is testing the strength of his backing with a fundraising appeal.
“Will you stand with me and chip-in $3 as a sign of support of my continued candidacy?” he says in the e-mail. “This is a crucial time and every dollar is needed.”
Denise Baltz, 56, of Des Peres, has accepted his apology. She said she had decided that Akin should quit. “But people make mistakes. He apologized and we should move forward. Todd Akin may be our best bet,” she said.
The last time Republicans faced a similar conundrum was 20 years ago when David Duke, a former Louisiana state representative, defied party leaders concerned about his racist views and continued his 1992 Republican primary bid against President George H.W. Bush.
Duke is a former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and ex-Nazi supporter who endorsed voluntary racial segregation and white separatism.
When Wisconsin tried to keep Duke off the presidential ballot, Scott Walker, then a state party official and now the state’s Republican governor, defended the action.
“We’re making a moral judgment based upon his background,” said Walker in a television face-off with Duke. “As recently as 1989, David Duke was known to have sold Nazi material right out of his office in Louisiana.”
Democrats have accused their partisan adversaries now of conducting a “war on women,” citing the House budget blueprint by Ryan, that cuts funding for Planned Parenthood.
Democrats also point to Republican attempts to pass a personhood amendment that critics say could limit certain forms of birth control and roll back abortion rights; and a recent failed Senate effort to let employers deny contraception health coverage to employees based on religious or moral objections.
Republican-led state legislatures are also pushing through restrictions on abortions. In all, 92 anti-abortion rights measures passed in 2011, the highest in history; 2012, with 39 similar measures, ranks second.
“We’re really in the midst of a wave of abortion restrictions,” said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that backs reproductive and abortion rights.
Obama, in a rare appearance in the White House press briefing room on Aug. 20, used Akin’s remarks to add volume to the Democratic narrative.
“What I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health-care decisions on behalf of women,” the president said.
Obama enjoys a more than 2-1 voter advantage over Romney on issues of concern to women, according to an Aug. 16-20 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Fifty-two percent of registered voters surveyed said Obama would be better on women’s issues, compared with 24 percent for Romney. Among the 1,000 voters surveyed, 52 percent were women and 48 percent men.
Women accounted for 53 percent of the electorate in 2008 and backed Obama over Republican nominee John McCain by 56 percent to 43 percent, according to a national exit poll.
The Akin controversy “doesn’t enhance the Republicans’ reputation as understanding women,” said Nancy Dwight, a former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Let’s also keep in mind that this is one candidate and one state and let’s hope that it stays just there.”
The cleanest way to make that happen for the party was to replace Akin, who currently serves in the U.S. House, with another Republican. If he had quit yesterday, the process would have been streamlined, as the state party could have simply chosen a different nominee.
Hours before a 5 p.m. deadline for Akin to withdraw, Romney issued his statement calling for the candidate to heed Republican leaders, including in Missouri, and drop out.
“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,” Romney said. “Today, his fellow Missourians urged him to step aside, and I think he should accept their counsel and exit the Senate race.”
Earlier, RNC Chairman Priebus and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called on Akin to step down, as did Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, and several former lawmakers from the state.
“The issues at stake are too big, and this election is simply too important,” said McConnell.
Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group founded with help from Republican strategist Karl Rove, had been airing ads against McCaskill. The group announced it was pulling its money out of Missouri if Akin remained on the ballot.
The St. Louis CBS affiliate that was airing Crossroads ads yesterday doesn’t “have anything presently booked” by the group, said Paul Conaty, national sales manager.
Tea Party Comparison
Akin beat St. Louis businessman John Brunner and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman in an Aug. 7 primary.
Akin’s political status is being compared by some Republicans with Senate candidates backed by the anti-tax Tea Party movement who faltered in the midterm elections two years ago.
In 2010, Nevada nominee Sharron Angle said Americans might have to “fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kind of ways” -- referring to the right to bear arms -- and it was publicized that in Delaware Republican nominee Christine O’Donnell had previously told an interviewer that masturbation was equivalent to adultery.
Yet at the time, party leaders didn’t try to oust the candidates because the Tea Party movement’s strength and appeal was still untested. O’Donnell and Angle were defeated, losses that helped prevent Republicans from winning the Senate.
“We’ve learned our lesson with candidates like O’Donnell in Delaware and the candidate in Nevada that we’ve got to clean house,” said Brad Blakeman, a former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush. “There’s nothing more that the Democrats want than for a story like this to have legs.”
Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, said the “swiftness,” “unanimity” and “bluntness” of calls for Akin to withdraw are “a sign of Republican concern about control of the Senate and memories of 2010.”