U.S. Rep. Todd Akin couldn’t beat a television interview and Sen. Claire McCaskill.
In August, just a few weeks after his surprise victory in Missouri’s Republican Senate primary, the six-term congressman told a reporter that a woman’s body can prevent pregnancy after a “legitimate” rape. He was explaining his views on abortion, which he has long opposed.
But the comments — for which he later apologized — provoked an unprecedented nationwide uproar that haunted Akin through Election Day, ultimately dooming his candidacy and costing his party what before was seen as a cakewalk U.S. Senate seat.
The highly religious candidate asked supporters Tuesday evening to thank God, “who makes no mistakes. We have lost this race.”
Akin’s comment on abortion and rape appeared to hurt him across the state. Many Republicans expected the race to be close, but early returns showed tens of thousands of voters split their tickets — supporting Mitt Romney for president but crossing over to help elect McCaskill, a Democrat.
Most major television networks called the race for McCaskill just after 9:15 p.m. He conceded half an hour later.
As expected, some votes went to Libertarian Jonathan Dine. Many Republicans who could not support McCaskill said they would vote for Dine instead.
Still, it appeared that when all the votes are tallied, McCaskill will get an absolute majority of all votes cast — suggesting Akin would have lost even if the ballot had not included a third name.
Beth Miller, a political science professor at UMKC, said Akin’s campaign collapsed because of a series of misstatements and gaffes, not just his answer about rape.
“That comment, plus the ‘dog’ comment, the ‘ladylike’ comment,” Miller said after Akin’s concession. “Akin shot himself in the foot.”
But the political setback from Akin’s comments on rape were apparent barely minutes after he made them in an interview on a St. Louis television station.
Within days, leading Republicans — including Romney — called on Akin to leave the race. Others denounced Akin’s rape argument, calling it “bizarre.” Five current or former U.S. senators from Missouri, all Republicans, explicitly asked Akin to drop out. McCaskill later used those pleas in her own advertising.
Akin ignored the requests to quit, believing the furor would eventually die down enough for him to make a case to Missouri’s increasingly conservative electorate.
But many of the Republicans who attacked the Senate nominee also appeared to keep their promise to stay out of the Missouri campaign.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” said Rick Tyler, one of Akin’s top campaign aides, who conceded the rape comment had done some damage. “The Republican Party could have stood by Akin, taken his apology and accepted it.”
In the end, McCaskill and outside groups supporting her outspent Akin by at least a 4-to-1 ratio. His spending shortfall, coupled with other controversial statements in the fall campaign, ended up moving a predicted GOP pickup of a Senate seat into the Democratic column.
McCaskill’s campaign did not focus on Akin’s abortion and rape comments until the very end of the race in a series of campaign commercials that featured victims offended by Akin’s remarks.
At the same time, the Republican did not completely disown the issue. He said his views on abortion would energize his supporters in the race’s closing days, a prediction that may have fallen short.
Akin campaigned with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who made much of Akin’s outsider status. Other evangelicals came to Akin’s aid, and some outside groups bought advertising — a group called Now or Never PAC invested more than $1 million in the race’s final weeks.
Its ads, and others, did not focus on Akin as much as they did on the national implications of the race.
“You don’t have to agree with everything he says,” the Now or Never spot said, referring to the GOP Senate nominee. “But you can be sure in the Senate Akin will vote with Romney’s policies.”
The backhanded praise may not have helped Akin as much as he had hoped. His campaign rallies were relatively tame affairs, often sparsely attended.
McCaskill also attacked her opponent’s positions on Medicare, student loans and the school lunch program. In ads, and in their two debates, she projected an image of a moderate not afraid to take on her own party.
Akin scoffed at the claim. He also attacked her for failing to pay taxes on a family aircraft and for her husband Joe Shepard’s tangled business finances, which have included substantial use of government tax credits to build housing for the elderly and the poor.
“She has gotten rich (in) a business that takes advantage of other people being in poverty,” Akin said in the second debate.
In another race, those comments might have had a greater impact. In the shadow of the rape and abortion statements, they struggled to break through to the public.
Akin’s arrest record for abortion protests also entered the race in the final days, but it appeared to have little impact on the outcome.
Polls showed a seesaw margin for McCaskill throughout the fall, although she led in every state poll but one after Akin’s interview.
His defeat may mark the end of the 65-year-old’s political career. He was first elected to the House in 2000 and was generally considered a reliably conservative vote in that body, although he did support federal earmark spending in his district, which McCaskill criticized.
He also was well known for supporting legislation on social issues.