TOWN AND COUNTRY, Mo. — Ask Missouri Republicans to share their thoughts on Rep. Todd Akin, the Senate candidate who declared recently that women rarely become pregnant from rape, and they take a minute to form a response.
Lips purse, eyes squint, heads tilt as people ponder whether to be polite or blunt.
“What a dummy,” one woman whispers.
“He just came across as not being very intelligent,” says another.
Republicans in the Show-Me State have been waiting six years to oust Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who was an early and enthusiastic backer of Barack Obama in 2008.
Now, they are starting to cope with the possibility that a near-certain victory may have been snatched from their hands.
Earlier this summer, when Akin, a six-term House member, won a tight three-way contest for the GOP nomination, the Senate race became his to lose. Missouri has been trending to the right since McCaskill won in 2006, a strong Democratic year. Republican Party faithful, sensing victory, rallied behind him. He led McCaskill in the polls, and the Republican money machine was prepared to inject millions in advertising dollars to boost his cash-poor campaign.
Then came the gaffe.
Akin, whose strong antiabortion views have been a key part of his political career, was asked in a television interview whether he favored allowing abortions in the case of rape or incest.
“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” he said, referring to pregnancy from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
With that brief remark, everything changed. Akin became the center of a political storm, with national and state Republican leaders urging him to quit the race for the good of the party — a suggestion he has refused.
Republicans were left dispirited.
“How do you put the toothpaste back in the tube when you say something like that?” asked Russell Kruse, a Republican official from Lafayette County who said the comment had sapped enthusiasm for Akin’s candidacy.
The disappointment was particularly acute here in the town where Akin was raised and where he lived until recently. This area, north of St. Louis, which Akin represents in Congress, is a GOP stronghold. Most Republicans interviewed here in the last few days said they would hold their noses and vote for Akin in order to defeat McCaskill.
But almost all said they wished he had bowed out to give the party a fresh shot at the seat.
The ordeal has been compared to a similarly explosive moment in 2006, when then-Sen. George Allen of Virginia, a Republican, used the word “macaca” to refer to an Indian American videographer at a campaign event. The word was widely interpreted as a racial slur, and what had been a tight race leaning in Allen’s favor suddenly flipped for Democrat Jim Webb, who went on to win by just 8,805 votes.
Akin has one advantage that Allen didn’t: He is challenging an unpopular incumbent, not battling a lesser-known opponent. In that sense, the controversy has allowed the congressman to retreat to more comfortable ground. He won the primary as an insurgent with grass-roots backing from tea party and conservative religious voters, and he appears determined to try to ride that same support to November.
Akin says he has raised more than $200,000 in small donations since the controversy began. And some prominent religious leaders have rushed to his defense.
Still, a Mason-Dixon poll conducted last week found McCaskill leading Akin 50% to 41%. Last month, Akin had a 5 percentage point lead.
To those sticking with him, the incumbent is the issue, not Akin. “The big picture is, I’ll vote for anybody but Claire McCaskill,” said Diane Traczewski, a homemaker from Dover.
“That’s right,” said Sherry Drunert, a retired teacher from Waverly. “But I do worry about the independent voter.”
Others say they can’t get past what Akin said.
“I don’t think I’ll vote for him again,” said Michele Pyatt, a ministry leader who agrees with Akin’s opposition to abortion in the case of rape or incest.
“Why didn’t he just say, a life is a life, and leave it at that?” a frustrated Pyatt said.
“It was just boneheaded,” Chris Gollobitz, an administrative assistant from Valley Park,said of Akin’s remark about rape. “I think it’s going to make it easy for McCaskill” to win.