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.

If he hires people with the right expertise, Gehrke said, "There's no reason Akin can't go raise $5 million online."

Akin's chances remain long -- the Cook Political Report has switched the race from "toss-up" to "likely Democratic" as long as he remains the candidate -- but far from impossible. So why have national Republicans, who rallied around Angle in 2010, shunned Akin so decisively? Some of it is surely political kabuki -- an attempt to distance the party, its other candidates, and the presidential ticket from Akin's toxic sound bite.

There's also the fact that, while Angle won her primary with the support of the Tea Party, Akin isn't a clear-cut Tea Party candidate; in the three-way Missouri primary, the Tea Party Express endorsed another candidate, Sarah Steelman, and the Club for Growth attacked Akin for his support for earmarks. And 2010's losses, such as Angle's, have made conservatives wary. "One of the lessons we learned in 2010 is that we need candidates who are not only conservative, but are capable of putting together a strong campaign against liberal opponents," the chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, Amy Kremer, said in the course of urging Akin to step aside.

To Steele, the Reid aide, the establishment's turn against Akin after it embraced Angle is pure, cynical political expediency. "Regardless of how inartfully Mr. Akin spoke, the truth is that the Republican platform is a radical, anti-choice platform that would force rape victims to have their attackers' children," he said. The GOP, he contended, has turned on Akin not because they disagree with his positions deep down, but because he threatens their chances of victory -- and because they see a way out in the possibility of replacing Akin on the ballot.

(A Tuesday deadline for Akin to withdraw has passed, but Republicans are confident that Akin could still pull out if he wants to, one national GOP strategist who wants to see Akin gone told me. Under Missouri law, Akin would have to file a court order and agree to pay to reprint ballots -- a cost the party would gladly help him shoulder -- and while the Democratic Secretary of State might file an objection, she would have to show good cause for keeping a candidate on the ballot who didn't want to be there. The stumbling block, the strategist said, is Akin's own willingness. He's dug in his heels against the establishment that wants him gone, wearing its opposition as a badge of honor.)

With Angle, on the other hand, the GOP establishment couldn't afford to alienate the Tea Party by turning against her -- and didn't see a way to nix her candidacy after she won the primary. "With Angle, Republicans nationally assumed they could just make the race a referendum on Harry Reid because his disapproval was so high," Steele said. "I think they also thought they would be able to control the result to a greater extent than they could."

The Angle campaign was beset by internal strife, as her local allies battled the national operatives who'd been sent to professionalize the operation. This led to some memorable clashes. In late October, when John McCain had come to the state campaign for Angle, she almost didn't allow him to take the stage based on the advice of grassroots supporters who didn't consider him a true conservative.

Then there was the time Angle appeared before a group of Hispanic students and answered a question about whether her ads were racist because they featured menacing Hispanic-looking faces. "I don't know that all of you are Latino -- some of you look a little more Asian to me," Angle said.

The whole event was a Democratic setup, arranged by Reid-supporting teachers and students. And the Angle campaign knew it -- advisers implored the candidate not to go, pulling it off the campaign schedule and then, when she insisted on attending, counseling her not to take any questions -- advice she ignored. The day before, Angle had been scored the narrow winner of her sole debate with Reid after both candidates turned in abysmal, bumbling performances.

The Asian comment was the moment Gehrke knew the campaign was over. "Our numbers fell off after that, they never came back, and I knew they weren't coming back," he said.

The No. 1 lesson of the Angle experience, according to the survivors: If Akin stays in the race, the surprises will keep on coming. "Legitimate rape" will not be the last time he makes national news, particularly given his penchant for frequent media appearances.

When Angle was nominated, Reid's camp knew she had some far-right views that would make for some easy attack ads. But her continued ability to shock was such that at some point, it was hard to keep the media's attention, Steele said; they had "crazy fatigue."

"When Sharron Angle won the primary, we knew she was an extreme right-wing Tea Party Republican," Steele said. "But there was a point at which she just started saying things -- we would joke, 'She can't top this.' But then she would."