WASHINGTON — Republican officials and activists pressured Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin to quit Monday and cut off millions of dollars slated for his campaign, worried that his comments about abortion and “legitimate rape” could ruin the GOP’s chances of controlling the Senate.
The top tier of the party’s establishment — presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, Senate Republican leaders and wealthy GOP campaign groups — all sought to sway Akin. The party’s campaign arm in the Senate and Karl Rove’s prominent “super PAC” pulled their money from the race, which had been widely considered the GOP’s best chance to defeat an incumbent Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill, this fall.
But Akin, a six-term congressman known as a conservative stalwart, dug in. “I’ve not yet begun to fight,” Akin said on a radio program hosted by Mike Huckabee, the former Republican presidential candidate. “The good people of Missouri nominated me, and I am not a quitter. My feeling is that we are going to move this thing forward.”
The controversy threatened to reopen a fissure between the GOP establishment and part of its right flank: the religious conservatives who have been Akin’s chief supporters.
Akin got renewed support from at least one prominent conservative group, the Family Research Council’s political action committee, even as Republican leaders in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail sought to separate his position on abortion from that of the party.
“This is another case of ‘gotcha politics’ against a conservative leader,” Connie Mackey, the president of the Family Research Council Action PAC, said in a statement.
Republican Senate candidates in several close races, including Virginia, Massachusetts and Montana, denounced Akin for saying that women who were the victims of a “legitimate rape” were very unlikely to become pregnant. So did the GOP’s fiscal conservatives.
“Congressman Akin’s comments this weekend are not just unfortunate and inappropriate, but they are distracting from our main goal of defeating Claire McCaskill and taking the Senate gavel,” said Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express.
The party’s swift reaction underscored the intensity of its concerns. “These are comments that are very hard to walk back, very hard to justify, and it hurts him with even Republican voters,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “This is not helpful to any Republican candidate.”
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, spoke with Akin on Monday and conveyed the stakes. An official with the committee said it would no longer be supporting the candidate, despite having reserved $5 million in airtime in Missouri for fall.
“Over the next 24 hours, Congressman Akin should carefully consider what is best for him, his family, the Republican Party, and the values that he cares about and has fought for throughout his career in public service,” Cornyn said in a statement issued by the Senate campaign committee.
The strenuous efforts to dislodge the party’s nominee come when political power over candidates is no longer concentrated in the hands of national or state party bosses. But they still hold considerable influence over donors and deep-pocketed patrons. And the flow of money can often wield the most influence on a candidates’ decisions.
Without the backing of the Senate campaign committee or American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the powerful Rove-affiliated groups that also said Monday they would pull funding, Akin faces an uphill climb. As of mid-July, McCaskill had $3.5 million in the bank, while Akin had $531,000.
“It has been communicated to the congressman from the committee that by staying in this race, he is putting not just this seat but the GOP’s prospects for a Senate majority at great risk,” said the official from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who requested anonymity to discuss private talks.
Akin was the unlikely winner in a largely three-way GOP primary contest earlier this month, and McCaskill’s campaign is eager to portray his views as out of step — as her campaign did in statewide ads against the GOP candidates. Akin won with 36% of the vote.
McCaskill has steered her campaign away from President Obama, and he refrained from mentioning her in a rare appearance Monday in the White House briefing room. He called Akin’s views “offensive.”
A longtime foe of abortion, Akin was pushed further away from his party with his remarks that pregnancies in cases of rape are “really rare.”
“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” the six-term Missouri congressman said in the interview with KTVI-TV, espousing a view that has no basis in science. Akin has co-sponsored numerous bills to limit access to abortions.
Akin later said he had misspoken in “off-the-cuff remarks,” and apologized.
“We all make mistakes,” Akin said in an email to supporters late Monday. “When you make a mistake you to tell people you’re sorry. You don’t try and hide it. I made a mistake, and I’m sorry.”
As the political storm churned Monday, GOP insiders considered other potential candidates to replace Akin — looking beyond the primary contenders.
Under election rules in Missouri, the deadline is 5 p.m. Tuesday for candidates to withdraw from the Senate race without a court order. The state party would have until Sept. 18 to select another candidate. After Tuesday, a candidate in Missouri could still withdraw from the ballot with a court order, but that would complicate the campaign. The state party would have 28 days to choose a replacement.
Former Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who was defeated by McCaskill in one of the biggest upsets of the 2006 election, was highly sought after by party leaders for a rematch earlier this year. He shot down hopes Monday that he would be a possible contender.
“If nominated, I will not run,” said Talent, who has been helping Romney’s campaign, in a brief interview Monday from Tampa, Fla., where the GOP convention platform committee was meeting.
Talent declined Monday to endorse Akin’s continued presence on the Missouri Senate ballot.
“It’s a decision he has to make,” said Talent. “I can’t agree with anything he said.”
Staff writers Robin Abcarian, Matea Gold, Christi Parsons, James Rainey, Maeve Reston and Paul West contributed to this report.