The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

October 22, 2012

Sunday Forum: Final Showdown

Missouri Senate candidates meet for last debate before election

The Joplin Globe

CLAYTON, Mo. — U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, once viewed by political observers as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country, is mounting a political comeback as she faces Republican rival Todd Akin, who is still attempting to solidify support within his own party after making damaging comments about “legitimate rape.”

Heading into the last two weeks of the election, Missourians would normally expect millions of dollars in television commercials to be aired in the state. But national Republicans — including Crossroads GPS, a super PAC handled by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove — and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have stayed out of the race, increasing the importance of strong fundraising from Akin’s campaign.

That, however, did not happen. In fact, Akin’s gaffe was followed by a fundraising boom for McCaskill, who raised $5.8 million in the final quarter of the campaign. Akin, on the other hand, raised just over $1.5 million in the same time period, most of which came from online donors. Such a wide fundraising gap has allowed McCaskill, who was once on the defensive against TV ads and a unified Republican base, to stay on the offensive against Akin.

Her posture was most notable during the pair’s second and final debate, which took place on Thursday night near St. Louis. In the shadow of Akin’s comments, McCaskill, who had always planned to run as a “Missouri moderate,” took the opportunity to try to define Akin as ideologically extreme. She pointed out his votes against federal funding for school lunches and federal student loans as well as his opposition to pay-equity laws.

Akin, responding to her charge, said he believes his views are “very much in sync with the voters of this state.” As he has done during campaign stops in Southwest Missouri and across the state, Akin attempted to tie McCaskill to President Barack Obama by noting her votes in favor of the federal health care law, her support of the 2009 economic stimulus bill and the increased deficit spending during her tenure.

“I think it’s interesting that Claire talks about being a moderate,” Akin said. “How much do you have to spend in deficit spending to become a liberal?”

Akin’s now infamous comment from August, in which he said the female body can somehow shut down pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape,” did not emerge in Thursday’s debate, but that does not mean Missouri voters are not hearing about it. Earlier this month, McCaskill released a set of new TV commercials featuring rape victims as they criticized Akin’s opposition to forms of abortion for victims of rape and incest.

One of the ads features a woman named Diana, who claims to be a pro-life Republican mother. In the spot, which the campaign is airing most often statewide, Diana said that because of her “personal beliefs,” she declined contraception in her case, but she also believes “no woman should be denied that choice.”  

“I’ve never voted for Claire McCaskill, but because of Todd Akin, I will now,” she said.

Beyond the ad’s obvious point of highlighting Akin’s statement, it also helps McCaskill make a play for independent and even moderate-Republican voters. Along with highlighting her ranking as No. 50 on the National Journal’s conservative-to-liberal scale and support from veteran issue stakeholders, McCaskill has noted support from high-profile Republicans, including Warren Erdman, a Kansas City businessman who formerly served as chief of staff to former Republican Sen. Kit Bond.

Bond, along with Missouri’s other former Republican senators, had called on Akin to drop out of the race, but when a September deadline passed for Akin to do so, the group pulled back on its call and ceded support to Akin. Mitt Romney’s campaign, however, has maintained its distance, forcing most national and mainstream Republican groups to hold out of the state.

Those groups that have emerged in the state, however, cater to Akin’s existing base. Sen. Rand Paul, a conservative from Kentucky, purchased ad time in Missouri last week criticizing McCaskill’s support of foreign aid to countries in the Middle East where anti-American violence has broken out in recent months. Akin spent much of the week campaigning with Janet Huckabee, who is the wife of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a social conservative much like Akin.

With the same zeal that McCaskill is seeking support from moderates, Akin is making a strong play for social conservatives. Akin’s messaging has not changed significantly since the August primary, when he pulled support from 217,468 Missourians (36 percent of the Republican electorate, and just over 24 percent of the entire August electorate).

It’s an unconventional strategy. Typically after grueling primaries, candidates hit reset and seek to move to the center, not further toward their ideological base. But for Akin — a deeply religious man — the race is a divine calling in which he is fighting for the values he and his supporters share.

“They’re taking God out of the military; trying to get chaplains to do gay marriages; all these different things. They’re a little bit like these red lights on your dashboard; warnings telling you that something is wrong,” Akin said at a recent campaign stop in Pulaski County. “That’s the thing that we’re going to be fixing in November.”

In the coming weeks, despite the roller coaster that has been this Senate campaign, one thing is almost certain: People in the Joplin area can expect concerted effort by Akin and other Republicans to seek votes from Southwest Missouri voters, a pivotal voting bloc for statewide Republicans.