St. Louis, Mo. — Yesterday marked the final deadline for Todd Akin to drop out of the Missouri Senate race and be replaced by another candidate. Akin marked the occasion by holding a news conference with religious leaders saying he was staying in the race and embarking on a statewide bus tour.
Akin believes voters have processed his absurd comments last month on a Missouri television station that “legitimate rape” rarely resulted in pregnancy and are ready to move on to other issues. The challenge he faces is that a horde of Republican-oriented groups quickly withdrew their financial support from him in an attempt to force him out of the race. While Akin has been able to raise decent amounts of cash from small donors — $850,000 in the last ten days or so — he can’t sustain statewide media buys on that level of support. Democratic senator Claire McCaskill is expected to start bombarding the airwaves with negative ads against Akin now that he is definitely her opponent.
But Akin got some good news yesterday as the Senate Conservatives Fund, a committee led by South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, announced “circumstances have changed” and that it may jump back into the race on Akin’s behalf. In an e-mail to supporters, SCF executive director Matt Hoskins wrote: “The race in Missouri appears to still be winnable.” A key element in SCF’s shift was Akin’s decision to finally embrace the group’s ban on earmarks. The campaign issued a statement saying: “Spending measures that do not go through the normal legislative process and instead are added just prior to a vote and are not germane to the bill to which they are added are clearly earmarks. Todd opposes this practice and has had no such earmarks.”
Rick Tyler, an Akin spokesman, says he is “hopeful” other groups will end their boycott of the race and jump in. Some GOP surrogates are already lending a hand. Newt Gingrich appeared with the candidate on Monday and urged Republicans to stop shunning Akin. He told reporters that such behavior was understandable in the immediate aftermath of Akin’s statements. “For the first 48 hours, fine. Now it’s stupid,” he said.
A number of key GOP players are likely to show up in Missouri or otherwise assist Akin over the next few weeks. They include former senator Rick Santorum, current senator Rand Paul and former congressman J. C. Watts. It’s not that all of them believe Akin can beat Claire McCaskill. But they at least want to be seen as standing with a conservative who has been repudiated by a party establishment that is often unpopular with the GOP grass roots. “Anyone who wants to run for president will be asked by conservatives where they were when Akin was in trouble and needed help to recapture control of the Senate,” Eagle Forum president Phyllis Schlafly told me at her national convention, which was held in St. Louis last weekend.
But many key Republicans groups are still likely to sit out the race, leery of attracting blistering attacks by the media if they cozy up to Akin. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, told ABC News on Sunday that “We’re not going to play in Missouri with Todd Akin. I can tell you that.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee and Crossroads GPS have both vowed not to spend any money to promote an Akin candidacy. “Focus groups found that women were identifying the Republican party with Akin’s comments on rape and that it was dragging down the whole ticket,” Crossroads adviser Karl Rove told me.
So it looks as if we will have a test case for whether or not a conservative Senate candidate can convince voters his lack of support from any establishment groups makes him an appealing populist or if it simply marks him as a political pariah. For conservatives, the worst possible outcome in Missouri will be if Akin indeed picks up support in the coming weeks against an unpopular incumbent but falls just short in the end for lack of financial support.