Why Claire McCaskill wants Todd Akin to stay in Missouri race

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) spent $2 million on ads in the GOP primary and got what she wanted: conservative Rep. Todd Akin as her opponent. Now that he's damaged goods, so much the better.

Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
Todd Akin, Republican candidate for US senator from Missouri, speaks at the Missouri Farm Bureau in Jefferson City, Mo., earlier this month.

As long as Rep. Todd Akin stays in the Missouri Senate race, Sen. Claire McCaskill might be the most fortunate Democrat running this cycle.

She appeared headed for defeat in November in a state that has been trending Republican. Her steadfast support for President Obama, plus stories about her private plane – a failure to pay taxes on it and its inappropriate use for Senate business – handed her an uphill fight.

Now Senator McCaskill’s campaign has new life. Donations from around the country are flooding into her campaign coffers, especially from women voters outraged by Congressman Akin’s comment Sunday that a woman’s body can prevent pregnancy in a case of “legitimate rape.”

Tuesday afternoon, Akin reaffirmed his decision to stay in the race in an interview on the Mike Huckabee radio show, even as Senate Republican leaders put out another statement pleading with Akin to “do the right thing” – code for dropping out. Mitt Romney also released a statement calling on Akin to "exit the Senate race."

McCaskill, of course, wants Akin right where he is, a wounded challenger who can be beaten in November. In fact, McCaskill invested in helping Akin win the GOP primary earlier this month, spending $2 million on ads describing Akin as “too conservative.” She got her wish, as Akin won in a three-way race with 36 percent of the vote.

Political analysts call McCaskill an astute political operator, both before the “legitimate rape” comment and after.

“I think she’s probably handled [the Akin uproar] about as well as she can,” says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, Columbia. “She conveyed her displeasure with his comments, while not appearing to pile on as he was being pummeled enough by the rest of the world.”

If she were to join in, Mr. Squire says, “it might make [Akin] a little more sympathetic, at least to some Republicans.”

Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday, McCaskill demurred on the question of whether Akin should drop out of the race.

“It’s not my place to decide… I think the people of Missouri have to make this decision,” McCaskill said. But she added that it would be “radical” for him to withdraw after winning the hotly contested primary on Aug. 7.

McCaskill also took a jab at Akin’s comment. “This statement is a window into Todd Akin’s mind,” she said. She added that as a former prosecutor, she held the hands of rape victims and cried with them.

A survey taken Monday and released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling shows Akin still ahead of McCaskill, but by only 1 percentage point, 44 percent to 43 percent. Other recent polls, pre-uproar, showed Akin ahead by an average of 5 percentage points.

A SurveyUSA poll released Tuesday showed 54 percent of Missouri voters, including a majority of men and women, want Akin to drop out of the race. Some 76 percent say they do not share his views on rape and pregnancy.

So while Akin appears to be losing altitude, he’s still in the hunt. Akin is also known as a political outsider who owes little to the Republican establishment. His son is his campaign manager, and his wife is a key political adviser. A big question looming for him now is whether he can run a credible campaign without national Republican money – both from party committees and outside groups.

McCaskill, one of seven female Democrats in competitive Senate races this year, is reaping the benefits of having a competitor who jumped into the incendiary topic of abortion and rape. Women’s groups, Democratic election committees, and female senators such as Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York have all put out the call for cash on McCaskill’s behalf. EMILY’s List, which bundles donations for pro-abortion-rights Democratic women candidates, reports a 10-fold increase in donations to McCaskill’s account on the group’s site from Friday to Monday.

After first winning election to the Senate in 2006, McCaskill carved out an image as a hard-charging liberal, backing then-Senator Obama early in his presidential campaign on the recommendation of her young-adult children. She was also an early adopter of Twitter, and is one of the most-followed senators. But over time, as her state has grown more conservative, she has become centrist in her politics.

Many Missourians don’t buy McCaskill's efforts at centrism. They see her as still closely tied to Obama, who is unpopular in the state.

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