It’s a rare event when a Senate contest affects a presidential campaign—or indeed, an entire election cycle. But for the moment, that’s what seems to have happened in Missouri, thanks to freshly minted GOP nominee Todd Akin’s witless talk about abortion and rape, and his determination (so far) to stay in the race despite threats and importuning from practically the entire Republican Party and conservative movement (with the exception of a few Christian Right colleagues). Most immediately, Akin’s big mistake has demolished what Republicans thought to be their most promising Senate takeover opportunity this year. Shortly after his primary win over two other major conservative opponents earlier this month, Akin, long considered the weakest of the available candidates, had already opened up a big lead over Sen. Claire McCaskill, and was beginning to consolidate conservative support very rapidly. Now a new Rasmussen poll (of all things!) shows McCaskill up by ten points, with Akin’s favorable/unfavorable ratio at a disastrous 35/53 level.
No one but Akin himself can get the wounded candidate off the ballot at this point, and with the deadline for an easy withdrawal and replacement by the state party having already passed, it would be complicated to make the switch, aside from the depleted resources, hurt feelings and late start a new nominee would inherit. So we are now in the midst of a game of “chicken” in which Akin may still believe the state and national GOP will relent and support his candidacy once the current furor has ended, and Republicans will undoubtedly keep the pressure on to convince him he’s throwing away a Senate seat and the good will of the party forever and ever. My money’s on an eventual withdrawal, but the hard-core public support he’s gotten to hang tough from Mike Huckabee, a pretty formidable figure in the GOP and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is an important counterweight to that temptation. Another factor will be whether grassroots Christian Right forces around the country embrace Akin as a martyr to their ban-abortion-with-no-exceptions cause, and provide him with the money to run a credible campaign without the party, 501(c)(4) and super PAC funds he’s been denied.
If the Missouri Senate race is indeed “taken off the table” for Republicans, the task of picking up the three (if Romney wins) or four (if Obama wins) seats necessary to gain control of the chamber now gets a lot harder. And realistically, Republicans have hoped to get to 52 or 53 senators to preserve the ability to enact major legislation (notably the Ryan Budget) via reconciliation, which requires only a majority vote, without fear of the possibility of dissenters like, say, Scott Brown.
Republicans currently lead polls in just three states with Democratic-held Senate seats: Nebraska, North Dakota, and (at least temporarily) Wisconsin. Montana and Virginia are dead even, and Republicans believe they are gaining momentum in Ohio and Florida, and have a decent chance in New Mexico. Meanwhile, they have all but conceded a seat in Maine, are vulnerable in Massachusetts (where Brown leads in virtually all polls, but will be battling an adverse top-of-the-ticket tide), and can’t take Nevada and Arizona for granted, either. The math is very tricky, particularly if they want a cushion of a seat or two, and the concentration of close Senate races in presidential battleground states likely reduces the power of heavy paid advertising to make a down-ballot difference. They really do need Missouri to come back into play by hook or crook.
Aside from its impact on the Senate landscape, the Akin brouhaha has had, from a GOP point of view, an unfortunate effect on the entire national political environment. At a time when they need unity, they are exposing division, and at the very moment when Romney strategists hope to overcome a difficult and distracting summer by getting attention refocused on Obama’s economic record, the GOP’s social-issues extremism—not just that of Akin, but of his conservative critics who “only” want to outlaw 99% of abortions—is front and center. The close proximity of Paul Ryan’s views on abortion to Akin’s is especially troublesome at a time when perceptions of the GOP running-mate are still being formed by the vast majority of voters who knew little or nothing about him.
Resetting and refocusing the campaign is, of course, the primary task of national conventions, and weather permitting, the Republicans will have their opportunity to do so next week. According to most reports, the convention will aim at rebuilding Romney’s “personal profile”—weakened by Democratic attacks on his record at Bain Capital and by his own mistakes—perhaps even at the risk of drawing attention to his religion and his record as governor of Massachusetts, topics his campaign has largely avoided. Those hoping for a big post-convention “bounce” may be disappointed, though: election cycles with extraordinarily low numbers of undecided voters tend to stay static, and the Democrats will be convening the very next week.
Photo by United States Congress via Wikimedia commons.