Harry Truman’s Missouri was a window on the nation’s culture and politics. It gave its electoral votes to eventual occupants of the White House for almost a century, choosing wrong just twice.
The Missouri of Todd Akin, the U.S. Senate nominee running against the wishes of Republican leaders after he said that raped women are less likely to become pregnant, reflects the might of anti-abortion forces and evangelical Christians who have transformed the state.
Akin, a six-term congressman from suburban St. Louis who unexpectedly won the Aug. 7 primary, is a beneficiary of the culture wars in Missouri, a state of 6 million at the forefront of legal battles over abortion, capital punishment, stem-cell research and school desegregation. So are some of the same Republicans calling for him to drop out, saying his remarks make him unelectable in November. He is refusing to budge and, through his campaign website, is asking supporters for $3 contributions.
“The Republicans have reaped what they sowed,” said Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, saying the forces that fueled the party’s growth may now undermine its electoral chances against Democratic U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill.
The Missouri that was torn between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War 150 years ago has definitively become a Southern state, Jones said. Social conservatives compose 37 percent of the electorate, he said, aligning it more with the reliably Republican South, the citadel of the party.
Once the nation’s demographic mirror, Missouri is 81 percent white, compared with 63 percent nationally, and 4 percent Hispanic, one-fourth the percentage of the nation, according to the Census Bureau. The southwestern portion of the state, among the fastest-growing regions, is a Republican bulwark, according to voting records.
Akin, an abortion opponent and home-schooling advocate first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, reflects the state’s Republican electoral mindset. While Governor Jay Nixon, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and Attorney General Chris Koster are Democrats, Republicans have a commanding grip on the Legislature, holding a 106-57 seat advantage in the House and 26-8 in the Senate.
Three Missouri laws restricting access to abortion have been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, and opposition to the medical procedure has raged in the state for four decades.
“It’s an issue in practically every race,” said Sam Lee, president of the St. Louis-based anti-abortion group Campaign Life Missouri. “A Republican has an automatic advantage because people have a distrust of pro-life Democrats.”
The state’s voters were first in the nation to speak out against Democratic President Barack Obama’s health-care law, approving by an almost 3-to-1 margin in August 2010 a non-binding referendum repealing the requirement that everyone buy insurance. In 2004 voters in every county approved a ban on gay marriage. The proposal was defeated only in St. Louis, which is independent of the surrounding county.
“The Republican Party has done a better job than the Democrats in getting out the vote, especially in the rural parts of the state,” said St. Louis University political scientist Kenneth Warren. “Republicans are much better organized.”
McCaskill, Akin’s opponent, is viewed by Republicans as the most vulnerable member of the U.S Senate, representing the best chance for the party to take control of the chamber.
Ike Skelton, a Democrat who represented a western Missouri U.S. House district for 34 years and was voted out of office in 2010, called that year’s election “a tsunami” in an interview.
That storm was no freak. Rather, it was the culmination of the state’s populist bent and long-held suspicion of big government, Jones said.
“Missouri has come a little later to what came to the old Confederate states in the ’80s and ’90s,” Jones said. “They removed conservative Democrats and replaced them with conservative Republicans.”
Missouri is tight with the dollar. It has the nation’s lowest-paid state employees, according to a 2010 measurement by the Census Bureau. Its fiscal prudence has helped maintain a AAA credit rating from Moody’s Investors Service since 1964.
Still, the state’s economy hasn’t thrived. The Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States, an index of factors that includes growth in employment, tax revenue and personal income, ranked the state 31st from the first quarter of 1995 through the first quarter of this year.
The state also has a history of turmoil and political surprises. In 2010, Nixon missed an assassination attempt when an attacker mistook a community-college dean in Kansas City for the governor and stabbed him, not fatally. After Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mel Carnahan was killed in an October 2000 plane crash, voters posthumously chose him over former governor John Ashcroft by 2 percentage points.
Statewide elections reflect an urban-rural political divide, with Republicans carrying most of the state outside Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia, home of the University of Missouri.
Akin, who said after his surprise 2000 primary victory that his “base will show up in earthquakes,” is again counting on support from those social conservatives. He defeated St. Louis businessman John Brunner and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman in the primary.
Then, on Aug. 19, he told a television interviewer that rape rarely causes pregnancy because a woman’s body shuts down her reproductive system. He later asked for forgiveness in a television advertisement. Still, presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and other party members called on him to quit.
Akin’s campaign communications director, Ryan Hite, didn’t return a call seeking comment yesterday.
Polls paint conflicting pictures. A Rasmussen Reports survey released yesterday had McCaskill leading 48 percent to 38 percent. A Public Policy Polling measurement Aug. 20 showed Akin up 44 percent to 43 percent.
“It can sometimes be a hard state to read, but it is trending Republican,” Warren said, citing the selection of John McCain over Obama in 2008. “However, the impact of the Akin thing could be devastating for the Republicans.”
Akin has vowed to plow on.
“I’m in the fight to the end,” he said on his website.