While Todd Akin may have regained some standing in the GOP after deciding to stay in the Missouri Senate race, he appears to be losing ground in his own state. The newest poll from Public Policy Polling puts Democrat Claire McCaskill ahead of her Republican opponent 46% to 40%, with Libertarian candidate Jonathan Dine polling at 9%. In the PPP’s last poll in late August, McCaskill was only up by a single percentage point.
What’s going on in Missouri? Is the recent poll a referendum on the GOP’s ultra-conservative stances on abortion and rape, and Akin’s legitimate rape gaffe? Probably, but perhaps not as directly as one might initially think. Akin has become an emblem for larger social issues like abortion and rape, with liberals arguing that he embodies the GOP’s beliefs and conservatives insisting his views are more extreme than their own.
This election season has been characterized across the board by rhetorical extremism; with claims of truth vs. falsehood, good vs. evil and liberal vs. conservative amping up every single day, it’s tempting to just write off the Missouri Senate race as yet another example of such polarization. But here’s the thing: regardless of how conservative or extreme Todd Akin is, he is part of a larger struggle for control of the Senate — and that control struggle, in turn, is a struggle about policy solutions for a variety of social issues and economic issues. (Although, once again, I’ll note that I believe that the economic vs. social issue binary is inaccurate.)
But though the race between Claire McCaskill and Todd Akin has now become extremely charged, it’s worth noting that it was not always so dramatic.
Akin has been described over and over as an extremely conservative candidate who represents his home state’s own attitudes. At Slate, David Weigel ponders whether or not the majority of Missourians are living in “Akin-land.” He writes, “Akin’s political base is the conservative suburbs of St. Louis, but 30 percent of the state’s GOP vote comes from this region, and it’s behind him now … If Akin can beat Sen. Claire McCaskill, if the polls that have him down by only 1 point are accurate, it will be because he does well in places like this… Southwest Missouri made the Todd Akin candidacy, and southwest Missouri could save it.”
When Akin won the GOP primary in Missouri in August, Fox News reported that he “won a contest defined by which candidate was the most conservative.” Akin billed himself as a Tea Party supporter, and was backed by former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, beating out the other candidates by winning 36% of the votes in the Republican primary. (The next two contenders received 30% and 29.2%, respectively.)
But in May, before the Republican challenger to incumbent Claire McCaskill was formally selected on August 7th, Akin was not seen as the candidate to attract very conservative voters in the state. At the time, PPP reports that Todd Akin polled at 23% against Sarah Steelman (who was endorsed by Sarah Palin) at 28% and John Brunner at 25%. Brunner led Akin for ‘very conservative’ voters in the state in May, 33% to 26% (with 20% for Steelman). Missouri voters reported in May that in a race between McCaskill and Akin, they would vote for Akin – but by one percentage point. Most voters knew nothing about Akin, with 57% reporting that they had no opinion on the candidate (versus an even split at 21% each for favorable and unfavorable.)
But by August, the final poll of the Republican Senate primary in Missouri had John Brunner beating Todd Akin 35% to 30%. Akin had curried favor amongst Republicans who described themselves as ‘very conservative,’ the largest GOP voting block in Missouri; he also attracted more voters who described themselves as ‘very excited’ to cast their ballots. Akin had gained massive points amongst, with now up to 54% of saying their opinion of him was favorable.
What happened? On August 8th, ABC News reported that Akin’s victory seemed “out of nowhere.” Some speculated that McCaskill’s own attack ad against Akin had established his credibility amongst conservatives, setting McCaskill up for an easy race against the candidate who was seen to be the weakest.
Shortly after his primary upset, Akin produced his own conservative credentials — and the rest, as they say, is history.
What’s been ignored, though, in the heated (and necessary) discussions about the GOP, rape and abortion rights is that Akin’s Senate race has never really been about Todd Akin, the man who willfully doesn’t understand the uterus. Rather, it’s about Todd Akin, the Republican who will fight for his party’s stances on issues like abortion and rape. In the episode of the The Jaco Report which catapulted the Missouri candidate into infamy, host Charles Jaco says so quite bluntly.
“By anyone’s measure, Congressman Todd Akin is a conservative … Akin has constantly opposed new taxes and a lot of new spending. He’s against abortion. He supports gun ownership rights… in 2008 he was ranked by the National Journal as the fifth most conservative member of the House of Representatives. That conservatism allowed him to win a hotly contested three-way Republican primary this month. It also presents a target for his opponent, incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. Akin defeating McCaskill is central to Republican hopes for re-taking control of the U.S. Senate in 2012.”
Akin repeated the same when he fully committed to staying in the race: “I have one purpose going into November, and that’s replacing Claire McCaskill.”
Rent polls show that Missouri voters understand what’s at stake in this race.
“Despite McCaskill's lead there's still reason to think this will be a competitive race. By a 50/42 margin voters would rather Republicans had control of the U.S. Senate next year than the Democrats,” observes PPP. “Right now Akin's only winning 78% of the vote among people who wanted a GOP controlled Senate, compared to the 95% McCaskill's getting with folks who want a Democratic controlled Senate.”
So what can we learn?
Firstly, a majority of Missourians believe that a woman can become pregnant by rape, which is comforting. But secondly, although 49% of Missourians think that Claire McCaskill has done a bad job as senator (compared to 44% who approve of her performance), and 50% want Republican control of the Senate, many Missourians still don’t like Todd Akin.
In an effort to highlight just how radically he opposed Claire McCaskill, her liberal politics, and her Democratic policies, Akin may have overplayed his conservative hand. His “legitimate rape” gaffe may cost him the election. But we should keep in mind that his policies themselves — which would have reinforced his personal beliefs, as he makes quite clear on his campaign website — would likely have been the same whether he had “used the wrong words” or not.
Just as voters (both men and women) are seldom single-issue, neither are politicians. To try to separate Akin’s beliefs about abortion from his beliefs about other issues like Obamacare is to ignore the choices he has explicitly said he would make as a senator. And to try to divorce the Missouri Senate race from the national struggle between political parties is to ignore the very real policy and attitudinal differences between political parties.