WASHINGTON — Leading Republicans sought Monday to pressure Rep. Todd Akin into quitting the U.S. Senate race in Missouri, fearing his ill-considered remarks on abortion and rape would cost the GOP its shot at controlling the chamber and damage the party’s presidential ticket.
Democrats, eager to capitalize on Akin’s comments, issued a burst of fundraising appeals — subject line: “Legitimate rape” — and even President Obama weighed in, saying the congressman’s statement was hard to comprehend.
But Akin, while apologizing, insisted he would stay in the race, one of a handful that could determine which party runs the Senate after November. He made his own money pitch, asking donors to chip in $3 apiece “as a sign of support of my continued candidacy.”
The six-term congressman, who represents part of the St. Louis suburbs, drew an outraged response from members of both parties after a Sunday interview in which he explained his opposition to abortion, even in the case of rape. Akin said such pregnancies were “really rare” because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
The near-panic in GOP ranks Monday reflected a political calculation; Akin’s comments played precisely to an assertion Democrats have maintained relentlessly — that Republicans are retrograde and insensitive to women’s rights.
And it did not require a great leap of imagination to tie Akin to GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep.Paul D. Ryan, who has sponsored antiabortion legislation with Akin and, unlike Romney, opposes the procedure even in cases of rape and incest.
Democrats eagerly highlighted that connection Monday, ignoring the fact that very few Republicans — and certainly neither Romney nor Ryan — publicly stood up to defend Akin or his remarks.
“He should understand that his words with regards to rape are words that I can’t defend, that we can’t defend, and we can’t defend him,” Romney said in an interview with television station WMUR in Manchester, N.H.
Obama weighed in during a surprise visit to the White House briefing room.
“Rape is rape,” he told reporters. “The idea that we should be parsing, qualifying, slicing what types of rape we’re talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people. It certainly doesn’t make sense to me.”
Despite Romney’s swift repudiation, Obama said Akin’s comments “underscore ... why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, the majority of whom are men, making healthcare decisions on behalf of women.”
In a radio interview Monday with former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee — one of Akin’s few defenders — the congressman said his remarks were ill-conceived and wrong, and he apologized. “Let me be clear,” Akin said. “Rape is never legitimate. It is an evil act.”
He insisted, however, he would not abandon the race against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, even with clear signs that many in the Republican Party wished he would do just that.
GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky pointedly suggested that Akin “take time with his family to consider whether this statement will prevent him from effectively representing our party in this critical election.” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the head of Republican campaign efforts in the Senate, said much the same thing.
An official with the National Republican Senatorial Committee said it would no longer support Akin, despite having reserved $5 million in Missouri airtime.
In a more ominous sign for Akin, the deep-pocketed conservative groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS announced they were pulling out of Missouri and halting their advertising against McCaskill. “The act speaks for itself,” Crossroads spokesman Nate Hodson said.
Until Monday, the Missouri Senate race was one of the top targets of the Crossroads organizations, which together have spent $5.4 million in the state, largely on biting television commercials that seek to paint McCaskill as a big-government-loving, tax-increasing liberal. A win in Missouri appears vital to GOP hopes of taking control of the Senate.
Capitalizing on the controversy, McCaskill blasted out a series of tweets and took to the television airwaves, calling Akin’s comment “jaw-dropping and stunning.”
Republicans’ swift reaction underscored the intensity of their 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.”
Even before Akin’s comment, the GOP in general and Romney specifically were struggling with a lag in support among female voters. Party strategists have argued, with polling as evidence, that the biggest issue of concern to women — especially breadwinners — is the economy, which can be especially hard on single and struggling moms.
That said, abortion can serve as a threshold issue for certain women. With their views in focus, it becomes more difficult for Romney and Ryan to overcome whatever doubts they face among more moderate women, who could be the deciding voters in several swing states.
Akin was the unlikely winner in a largely three-way GOP primary contest this month, and McCaskill’s campaign is eager to portray his views as out of step. Her campaign took out statewide ads meant to boost Akin against other GOP candidates, and Akin won with 36% of the vote.
McCaskill has steered her campaign away from Obama, and he refrained from mentioning her in his Monday appearance in the White House briefing room.
Mascaro reported from Washington and Barabak from San Francisco. Matea Gold, Michael A. Memoli and Christi Parsons in Washington and James Rainey in Los Angeles contributed to this report.