TOPICS > Politics

Missouri Senate Seat in Play as Akin and McCaskill Fight for the Middle

October 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Democrats expected incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to lose her seat come November. But after her challenger Republican Todd Akin made controversial remarks about rape and abortion, McCaskill has gained a narrow lead. Gwen Ifill reports on the key race, which may dictate which party controls the Senate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we come back to politics. In the battle for control of the U.S. Senate, many expected Missouri would be an easy pick-up for Republicans.

Gwen Ifill reports on why the seat is now back in play for Democrats.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-Mo.: Remember, get someone to sign up for a shift. And if you would all sign up for one shift a week for the next six weeks, we can get this done.

GWEN IFILL: Last August, Democrat Claire McCaskill became one of the luckiest endangered incumbents in the nation.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: This election will be close. I can’t remember an election to the United States Senate in our state for this seat that wasn’t close.

GWEN IFILL: But for McCaskill, who won only narrowly in 2006, close is good. And the latest polls actually shows her ahead.

But, until recently, national Democrats actually expected her to lose.

WOMAN: I give you our next United States senator, Todd Akin.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: That changed when challenger Todd Akin made waves by going on television to declare that rape victims shouldn’t be allowed to have abortions because they seldom get pregnant.

REP. TODD AKIN, R-Mo.: From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

GWEN IFILL: The video went viral, and Akin’s national profile soared. But the five-term congressman immediately became a political pariah within his own party, with Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and every senior Missouri Republican demanding he get out of the race.

Akin apologized, but he didn’t drop out because, he says now, he is not a quitter.

TODD AKIN: I have been in gas stations in different places. People come up. I don’t know if they’re going to hit me or love me. They say, are you Akin? Are you Todd Akin? I go, yes, I — and people say, I’m going to vote for you. Don’t you step down. We chose you. We expect you to go and win this race.

GWEN IFILL: Akin is strongly anti-abortion, and has made controversial statements before, including in 2008, when, on the House floor, he derided abortion providers.

TODD AKIN: You find that, along with the culture of death, go all kinds of other law-breaking, the — not following good sanitary procedure, giving abortions to women who are not actually pregnant, cheating on taxes, all these kinds of things.

GWEN IFILL: McCaskill’s campaign ads remind voters of Akin’s comments.

NARRATOR: On March 16, Akin said he wants to abolish the minimum wage, on April 21, said he would eliminate student loans. And, on August 19, Todd Akin said, only some rapes are legitimate. What will he say next?

GWEN IFILL: But McCaskill has her own problems. Romney is well ahead in Missouri, and more than half of the voters here disapprove of President Obama. She says she remains independent of the White House.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I think the president, if he were in Missouri, he would say to Missourians what I hope they know about me, and that is, I can be a real pain.

I am not somebody that does what he wants me to do at his beck and call. I have said no to him. It doesn’t mean I don’t support him; it just means that I have a strong, objective record of independence.

GWEN IFILL: Akin is happy to remind voters she voted for both his health care and his stimulus plans.

TODD AKIN: She’s trying to say that she is mainstream, but when you vote with Barack Obama 98 percent of the time, it’s hard to say that with a straight face.

GWEN IFILL: The outcome of this election could hinge on liberal cities like Saint Louis, where Claire McCaskill supporters live, or on conservative suburbs like here in St. Charles, deep in Akin’s congressional district.

As the candidates duke it out time, money, attention and enthusiasm, which voters turn out where matters.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis, says the topsy-turvy election has cut both ways.

DAVE ROBERTSON, University of Missouri-Saint Louis: One of the things Akin has been able to do is really electrify some of the conservative base.

But there’s a countermovement to that.

And the countermovement is he’s also helped electrify some of the female voters in the state, some of the moderate voters in the state, some of the votes in the key suburbs of this state that are going to determine the outcome of this election. And that’s a real disadvantage for him.

GWEN IFILL: Akin is counting on conservatives, homeschooling parents, and evangelicals to rally around his cause.

REV. STONEY SHAW: We don’t tell you who to vote for, but I’m going to tell you how to vote.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Stoney Shaw, pastor of FergusonFirstBaptistChurch, has known Akin for 25 years.

REV. STONEY SHAW, FergusonFirstBaptistChurch: Some of my family was — my children: Dad, you’re not going to support him, are you? Everybody is turning against him. I said, well, there was another guy that everybody turned against, Jesus Christ. But he prevailed.

And I believe Todd will prevail. I really do. He’s a good man. Yes, did he misspeak on that issue? Yes. Yes, of course he did. But he asked for forgiveness.

GWEN IFILL: Linda Becker, who lives in Akin’s district and considers him a friend, thinks it’s time to move beyond the rape remarks.

Becker dabbles in singing pop and gospel, even on occasion with Akin, and last week was on stage at Oktoberfest in St. Charles. She says she doesn’t like the idea of Washington politicians dictating Missouri’s choice.

LINDA BECKER, Missouri: Todd stayed in. And I am so proud of him for staying in and sticking with us, because there a lot of people that really want Todd in the U.S. Senate. And he’s answering that by staying in and fighting.

GWEN IFILL: Has that been very appealing to people, the idea that he resisted all these calls for him to drop out?

LINDA BECKER: Yes, it’s very appealing. People like the fact that he’s standing up to the powers that be.

GWEN IFILL: Both candidates are betting big on two things, that their supporters will turn out and that their opponents’ will stay home.

Cheryl Hibbeler was also at the St. Charles festival. But she’s been working for McCaskill.

CHERYL HIBBELER, Missouri: I think Claire is a strong woman, strong convictions. She tried to work with both sides.

But we get the reaction from the persuasion people that we’re calling that they don’t want to vote for Claire McCaskill because they think that she’s too much connected to President Obama.

But when we talk about it and they find out more about who Todd Akin is, they seem to say, I can’t vote for either one of them. And a non-vote is pretty much an assistance to Claire.

GWEN IFILL: But after Akin refused to get out of the race and as national Republicans began to worry the Missouri seat might cost them control of the Senate, some Akin critics, including Sen. Roy Blunt, have returned to the fold.

Still, the party rift remains. Former Republican Senator John Danforth, a force in the Saint Louis community, said he would rather write in a candidate than support Akin.

JOHN DANFORTH (R), former U.S. senator: I can understand their position. I mean, it’s like counting apples. You know, they’re saying, well, we need 50 or 51 in the Senate. And he’s one person who’s competing for a seat.

But I see him as the apple that spoils the barrel. I mean, that’s the way I look at Akin. I think that he really hurts the Republican brand and he damages the party nationally, and that it’s very important for Republicans to say no.

GWEN IFILL: Akin says he will settle for support from Republicans out of state, including former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, and even Pat Boone.

All that has left both McCaskill and Akin fighting for the middle, with McCaskill condemning Akin as extreme.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: He believes that a rape victim shouldn’t be able to get emergency contraception. That’s a fundamental core belief he has.

He believes that the federal government shouldn’t tell employers that they are limited in terms of how they can discriminate against women. It’s not that we’re on opposite ends; it’s just he’s so far from the middle.

GWEN IFILL: For Akin, who caused a new stir when he said McCaskill had not been very ladylike during their last debate, it is the incumbent senator who is out of touch with the state’s values.

TODD AKIN: Let’s talk about the mainstream thinking in the state of Missouri. You take a look at the Second Amendment in the state of Missouri, that’s a freedom people respect, the right to bear arms. I have an A. rating from the NRA. She has an F. rating. Now, which is mainstream?

GWEN IFILL: McCaskill has one clear advantage. With under a month to go, she has far more cash in her campaign war chest, while outside PAC money has stopped flowing into Akin’s campaign.

And barring new controversy, that, as much as anything, may determine who gets the last word.

JEFFREY BROWN: The full interviews with Todd Akin and Claire McCaskill are online. Plus, get Gwen’s take on how Romney’s post-debate rebound might play out in the Missouri Senate race. That’s in her weekly blog post on our Politics page.