More than two weeks after Republican Todd Akin stunned Missouri with his comments about rape victims, Democrats are convinced that the Senate race remains so intensely competitive that Claire McCaskill could lose in November.
“It’s going to be a close election, people,” Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan told Missouri delegates Tuesday morning on the first day of the party’s national convention. “We know our state. We know this is going to be a dogfight down to the end.”
But whether the race still ranks as competitive, as so many Missouri Democrats here believe, or whether Democratic leaders are pushing that line to convince Akin to continue running and keep Democrats engaged, is an open question.
Some signs have emerged that the race isn’t close at all.
Two recent polls conducted after Akin’s remarks, in fact, showed McCaskill leading the six-term St. Louis-area congressman by 9 and 10 points, although one Democratic pollster had McCaskill up by just one point, 45 to 44 percent. And the nonpartisan Cook Political Report just moved the race from tossup to “likely Democratic.”
“It’s just not a winnable race for the Republicans,” said Cook analyst Jennifer Duffy. “If he gets out of the race, we’ll throw it back into tossup.”
But one thing is clear: Akin’s Aug. 19 comments that “legitimate” rape victims have the biological ability to ward off pregnancy have proved to be so explosive that the Missouri race is now in unchartered territory that makes forecasting unusually difficult.
While Democrats privately remain giddy at an unexpected stroke of good fortune in a race they were braced to lose, they also acknowledge that the contest could turn sharply again if Akin withdraws before a Sept. 25 deadline for removing his name from the ballot.
Akin, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, has apologized repeatedly for his remarks and aired a TV spot in which he looks into the camera and asks voters to forgive him. Yet he has insisted that he is in the race for good.
Democrats and political analysts are divided over whether major Republican donors, who have vowed to abandon the race as long as Akin remains a candidate, will eventually change their minds if the race stays close.
Duffy said most of those donors are likely gone for good. Still, others aren’t so sure. They point out that political action groups associated with the GOP, such as Crossroads GPS, have vowed to pull their money, but haven’t released TV times they’ve reserved.
There’s also disagreement over whether rank-and-file voters will even recall Akin’s words weeks from now, although some insist that the comments received so much attention that they will never stray much from most voters’ minds.
“There’s no question that people won’t forget that he made the remarks,” said Richard Martin, who managed McCaskill’s winning 2006 campaign. “At some point we’ll move on to other issues, and we’ll debate other things that he’s said and that Senator McCaskill has said. But for now I think it’s pretty lasting.”
McCaskill has challenges outside her control, too, including her ties to a president who remains unpopular in Missouri. At last week’s convention in Tampa, a top Republican fund-raiser said private polls showed Mitt Romney leading by six to seven points in the Show Me state, a margin similar to recent public polls.
That’s the margin McCaskill must overcome to defeat Akin. In 2006, a big Democratic year, she defeated incumbent Sen. Jim Talent by just two percentage points.
McCaskill endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and campaigned throughout the state on his behalf. This year, she is not attending the party’s convention, and she has taken care in her own commercials to emphasize issues where she has disagreed with the White House — the Keystone pipeline, for example, or the environmental legislation known as cap and trade.
“Our campaign is moving forward as planned, working hard and taking nothing for granted,” McCaskill spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki said. “This is going to be a close race, and I know Claire is going to keep working like she’s running from behind.”
Unlike Carnahan, whose 2010 Senate campaign may have been damaged by a visible Kansas City fund-raiser with Obama, McCaskill has been careful to stay out of the picture frame with the president. Some believe her lack of enthusiasm cost St. Louis the convention that Democrats launched in Charlotte on Tuesday.
McCaskill is painfully aware of the dangers of linking a statewide campaign with the top of the ticket. In 2004, as a candidate for governor, she watched helplessly as John Kerry campaigned across the state in August, then abandoned it as unwinnable.
To this day, some blame Kerry’s decision for McCaskill’s loss.
Indeed, McCaskill’s race suggests Missouri Democrats must walk a tightrope this fall. She cannot win without a strong turnout in Kansas City and St. Louis, urban areas where a competitive Obama might draw voters to the polls. If the president’s prospects are diminished, that turnout could dwindle.
But a statewide effort to boost Obama might backfire, increasing turnout in GOP-friendly rural and suburban counties.
So Democrats, from McCaskill to Gov. Jay Nixon, are carefully emphasizing their own campaigns while trying to avoid antagonizing core Democrats they need to win.
Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Tuesday that McCaskill would have an active, get-out-the-vote campaign this fall. In 2006, the committee invested $5 million in such an effort in Missouri, and Cecil pledged “a similar investment” this year.
“I’m optimistic about the race,” Cecil said. “But I think that (Akin’s political) obituary was written prematurely, and I think folks who know Missouri understand it’s still going to be a competitive race.”
At the insistence of party leaders, Akin skipped the GOP convention in Tampa. In skipping her party’s convention this week, McCaskill opted to campaign largely in rural Missouri where she’s been discussing veterans’ and farm issues. Today, she’s talking about student loans in a pair of university towns: Maryville and Kirksville.
She’s been quiet of late about Akin and his controversial remarks. But some Democrats expect McCaskill to turn up the heat if Akin stays in the race.
They warn that lots of time remains before the Nov. 6 election. And the politics of any race can shift quickly.
“It’s a very complicated picture, and things can change,” said veteran Missouri Democratic operative Roy Temple. “It’s a long way to November.”