Could Todd Akin still win?

Todd Akin has not dropped out of the US Senate race in Missouri after his 'legitimate rape' comment. Missouri's rightward tilt gives him hope this fall, but not too much, experts say.

Jeff Roberson/AP
US Rep. Todd Akin (R) of Missouri announces his candidacy for US Senate in Creve Coeur, Mo., earlier this year.

Todd Akin says he’s not quitting. The GOP congressman insists he’s in the Missouri Senate race to the end, despite the fact that most of the Republican Party hierarchy is pressing him to step down. He hasn’t done anything morally or ethically wrong, and the furor over his use of the phrase “legitimate rape” when talking about pregnancy and abortion is an overreaction, Mr. Akin said Tuesday on Mike Huckabee’s radio show.

“What we’re doing here is standing on a principle of what America is,” said Akin.

OK then. It appears he’s going to continue his quest to unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. Could he actually win?

The conventional wisdom is “no.” Many professional political prognosticators feel this flap has sealed his fate. Over at the Cook Political Report, analyst Jennifer Duffy judges that his comments about rape have “rendered him unelectable.” Democrats will repeat them no end, and Republican campaign organizations have all withdrawn financial and political support.

“As long as he remains the nominee, this race is no longer a Toss Up and McCaskill is a strong favorite for re-election,” writes Ms. Duffy.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato is not quite so harsh. His Crystal Ball political newsletter has moved the Missouri Senate race from “leans Republican” to “toss up.”

But the race still poses a dilemma, Mr. Sabato tweeted in the wake of Akin’s announcement that he’s staying in. “Hard to imagine either McCaskill or Akin winning,” he wrote. “Maybe Akin gets out later on.”

Unsurprisingly, that’s not how Akin himself sees the election unfolding. In a number of interviews on Tuesday he defended himself in part by portraying himself as a candidate who’s now outside the party structure, and thus more appealing to “political bravehearts” (his words) who judge themselves independent.

Given current national attitudes about the poisonously partisan atmosphere in Washington, it’s at least possible that Akin is right. After all, current polls show that his gaffe hasn’t – or hasn’t yet – taken a toll. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted Aug. 20 showed Akin leading McCaskill by 1 percentage point, 44 to 43.

“Akin has certainly been damaged by this whole thing ... but he’s by no means out of it – it looks like Missouri’s increasing Republican lean over the last few years would give him a decent chance at victory in spite of this major controversy,” writes PPP’s Tom Jenson.

Missouri’s GOP tendency might indeed be Akin’s last, best chance at winning a Senate seat. As New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver notes, the Show-Me State has trended Republican in presidential votes since 1996. In 2008 it was the only battleground state Sen. John McCain (R) won.

Why is this? White, conservative, rural voters in the state have become increasingly Republican, as they have throughout neighboring Southern states, Mr. Silver writes. Missouri’s population growth has centered on such GOP strongholds as exurban St. Louis. Overall, Silver predicts that Mitt Romney has a 79 percent chance to take Missouri’s electoral votes.

So it’s possible Akin could ride into office on Romney’s coattails. But it’s also just as possible that the effects of his unfortunate language just have yet to sink in. A 2011 paper by political scientist Nicholas Chad Long of St. Edward’s University found that on average Senate incumbents involved in scandals of one kind or another lost 6 points at the polls.

“This decline in support made it more likely that those incumbents would fail to return to Capitol Hill,” Mr. Long wrote.

But Akin isn’t the Senate incumbent in Missouri – that’s Senator McCaskill. [Editor's note: The last sentence of this story, which contained an error, has been omitted.

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