Most voters in exit polls said that they gave the comments on rape and abortion by Rep. Todd Akin (R) of Missouri "some consideration" in the voting booth – and that those who did overwhelmingly sided with Senator McCaskill. The comments angered both women and men, who were only slightly less likely than women to back the incumbent.
In the end, McCaskill won with a 15 percentage-point margin a race she had been expected to lose by at least that much.
As a freshman senator, her voting record was out of sync with a state trending increasingly Republican. McCaskill's early and public support of President Obama, who lost the state twice, her backing for the 2009 stimulus and 2010 health-care reform known as Obamacare, as well as ethical issues involving taxes and improper payments didn't help. By mid-summer, she was limping into a general election with a 40 percent job approval rating and trailing Representative Akin by double digits in the polls.
But Akin's toxic comments in an August television interview that pregnancy is rare in cases of "legitimate rape," because "the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down" went viral on the Internet and gave a new face to the campaign.
Akin apologized for his "six second mistake," but by then the damage had been done – not just to GOP hopes for taking back the Senate but also to the overall Republican brand, especially among women. Top GOP leaders, including Mitt Romney, urged Akin to get out of the race. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said publicly that he would not be welcome in the Senate.
Still, some social conservatives, such as former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) of Arkansas, publicly backed Akin. The deadline to take his name off the ballot came and went, as Akin insisted that conservatives were rallying to his campaign and that he could still win the race.
Exit polls by the Associated Press show that McCaskill was helped by a strong turnout from women, especially among younger women, but she also drew support from nearly half of male voters. Akin drew support among women 65 and older. Exit polls also signal a racial gap: Akin drew support from white women, while black women backed McCaskill "in a landslide."
"This election provided a clear choice between leaders like Claire McCaskill, who want to move forward by expanding women's healthcare access and economic opportunity, and candidates like Todd 'Legitimate Rape' Akin, who was committed to redefining rape, and denying women access to reproductive health care and equal pay," said Stephanie Schnock, president of EMILY's List, which raises money for Democratic women candidates to support abortion rights, in a statement after the vote.
"It looks like Claire McCaskill (D) pulled off one of the most dramatic escapes in recent political history, thanks to Rep. Todd Akin (R)," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "His comments about rape, abortion and subsequent inability to stay out of the headlines ensured his defeat."