Why Todd Akin Could Still Win Missouri (Seriously)

Remember Sharron Angle? Some of the things she said were just as out-there as "legitimate rape" -- and she almost beat Harry Reid in 2010.

Associated Press

When Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin went on television last weekend and uttered the words "legitimate rape," veterans of the Sharron Angle campaign had a collective flashback, PTSD-style.

Angle, the Republican Senate candidate who ran against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010, is best remembered for out-there statements like suggesting that "Second Amendment remedies" might be necessary to restore liberty. Her loss to Reid helped ensure that the GOP would fall short of the Senate majority in the midterm elections.

Angle's candidacy is a case study in the ability of a deeply flawed candidate to squander an otherwise winnable election. Republicans' current panic over Akin's candidacy reflects a fear that history will repeat itself in Missouri. But to veterans of the Reid-Angle race, Angle's candidacy also suggests that Akin could still win.

Reid's win was never a foregone conclusion, even with Angle as his opponent, said Kelly Steele, a Democratic operative who served as the Reid campaign's communications director. "I don't think any of us took anything for granted until we saw Brit Hume on Fox News call the race for Harry Reid," he said. "The public polls for the entire last month of the race predicted a 1, 2, 3-point Sharron Angle victory. All the national pundits predicted Sharron Angle was going to win."

Like Angle, Akin is a fringe candidate who stunned the establishment by winning the GOP primary to take on an unpopular Democratic incumbent. Like Angle, he's quickly found himself on the defensive for inflammatory statements on hot-button issues. It was just a few weeks after winning the Nevada primary that Angle, for example, told a radio host that pregnant rape victims ought to turn "a lemon situation into lemonade."

But despite her flaws, the political fundamentals of the race kept Angle competitive with Reid. That could be case for Akin, too. Here's why it's too soon to write him off, no matter what the national GOP says:

* The incumbent is unpopular: Democrat Claire McCaskill hasn't managed to pull more than 45 percent support in any poll conducted in the last year and a half, and in one poll taken since the rape controversy erupted, Akin was still leading, as Jeff Smith has noted. (A second poll, however, has shown Akin losing by 10 points.)

* Akin has a loyal base: Like Angle, Akin has a strong, largely under-the-radar base of social-conservative activists across the state and nationally. They helped him win the primary, in which Mike Huckabee was his only big-name endorsement.

Akin also has some advantages Angle didn't in 2010:

* He's running in a red state: Obama narrowly lost Missouri in 2008; he won Nevada by 12 points.

* He's running in a white state: Nevada is 27 percent Hispanic; Missouri is just 4 percent Hispanic. Mobilizing Hispanic voters -- and highlighting Angle's far-right stance on immigration -- was key to Reid's victory. McCaskill won't have that advantage.

* It's a presidential election year: Despite the current furor over Akin's comments, the presidential campaign is the marquee political event this fall, sure to overshadow any one Senate contest. And if Romney carries Missouri, as he's almost certain to do, Akin could ride in on his coattails.

* There's no "Reid factor": Missouri experts say McCaskill has a good political operation, and she has raised more than $12 million. But it's just not the same as being the Senate majority leader, with all the clout and resources that brings. (Of course, the fact that she was trying to dethrone the majority leader gave Angle's bid more significance, too.)

Jordan Gehrke is a Washington-based Republican consultant who joined Angle's campaign after her surprise primary win -- part of a "rescue mission" of national consultants sent to professionalize her ragtag band of longtime local loyalists. He's agnostic on the question of whether Akin should stay in, but he understands why Akin has thus far resisted calls to leave the race.

"If [Akin] is my dad -- his son is his campaign manager -- I'm saying, 'Look, we can stay in this thing and maybe you fight your way back in it and you end up with a 50-50 chance, or you can say you're finished and your career is over,'" Gehrke said. Akin is 65 and has given up his seat of the House of Representatives. "What's he going to do with the rest of his life? Be 'Todd Akin, R-Legitimate Rape'? I understand why he wants to fight it out."

Akin's main disadvantages at this point, beyond the candidate's own flaws, are a lack of money and professional help. He claims to have raised $100,000 online in recent days, but that's pocket change for this kind of race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Crossroads GPS funding juggernaut have both vowed not to support Akin financially if he stays in the race.

But Gehrke, who helped Angle raise a stunning $28 million, putting her on par with Reid's fundraising, said that with the right help, Akin can access a grassroots donor base. Despite his abandonment by both the D.C. establishment and many grassroots conservative voices, Akin still has support from Huckabee and other pro-life activists. In 2010, even Christine O'Donnell, whose "I am not a witch" antics as the Delaware Senate nominee made Angle look tame by comparison, raised $7.5 million.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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