Jeff Smith: Why Todd Akin Could Win

As I predicted when Rep. Todd Akin’s ignorant comments first broke, the anti-gambling zealot was going to call the party’s bluff. And despite the fact that the Republican Party’s reversal is an embarrassing sign of the party’s captivity to its lunatic fringe, yes, East Coast establishment, he could actually win.

Before explaining why, it’s worth noting that the NRSC’s about-face is also a story of personal ambition: Sen. John Cornyn understands that he’ll never become Whip (or ultimately, Majority Leader) if he blows his second chance to retake the chamber. With Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Connecticut especially difficult in a presidential year; North Dakota, Montana, and Indiana unexpectedly difficult in a presidential year; and Virginia, Wisconsin and Nevada all trending poorly, Cornyn realizes that any Senate majority goes through Missouri And given the specter of Ken Buck, Sharron Angle, and Christine O’Donnell, Cornyn also knows that there won’t be much forgiveness in his caucus if he blows it again courtesy of a nominee who could’ve been avoided had the primary field been limited to two.

So, how could Akin win? Since 2008, Missouri has swung as hard to the right as has any state in the country. First there are long term demographic shifts at play - not exactly a new trend, but an accelerating one. In a nutshell, ascendant conservative Republican legislators have repelled gays, immigrants, and young, mobile progressives, just as the continuing growth of Branson, Mo. (the live music capital of the world) and the conservative Springfield metro area have attracted hordes of conservative evangelicals and retirees. It was a vicious cycle: the more retrograde the political debate, the more progressives left Missouri or avoided it in the first place. And the more progressives disappeared, the more conservative the electorate became, and the more reactionary the debate. The burgeoning strength of grassroots conservatives in Missouri became apparent in 2010 when Republicans rode the wave to legislative majorities of 106-57 and 26-8 in the state House and Senate, respectively.

Not only is Southern Missouri strongly evangelical, but much of the heavily Catholic St. Louis metro area is strongly pro-life as well. And socio-political life in much of the region – especially the conservative areas of South St. Louis city and County – revolves around the parish church. This gives the anti-abortion movement a rare one-two. rural-urban punch, something it lacks in most states outside the South, and explains how Rick Santorum walloped Mitt Romney 55 percent to 25 percent in the Missouri presidential primary. It also explains how someone with Akin’s primitive views could possibly remain competitive.

That’s left Missouri in a place where the Democrats who succeed statewide are those like Governor Jay Nixon, who spoke out against the “Obamacare” mandate and steadfastly distance themselves from ideological national politics. Despite her smarts, rural roots, and down-home candor, Claire McCaskill – the first woman senator to support candidate Obama in 2007 – has had a much tougher time getting the distance necessary to remain popular among independent voters.

At this point, it’s about money. In the past month, evangelical leaders around the country have essentially told the Republican Party: “You need us more than we need you. We’ve put up with the Scott Browns, the John McCains, the Mitt Romneys, and we’ve been loyal soldiers. Unless the Sheldon Adelsons of the world are ready to start knocking on doors, you’re screwed without us. Now it’s payback time for the decades of phone banking. We need your money.”

Back in the primary, the Christian right had the troops if not the money. But unlike the primary, they now finally have the leverage: a nominee. Indeed, with control of the Senate riding on it, you really couldn’t script a scenario to give them any more leverage. And so they weren’t going to get rolled again.

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Karl Rove may be too proud to spend American Crossroads money. But it will come from somewhere. As Mike Allen wrote in Politico earlier this week, the “independent” groups on the right are more coordinated than ever, thanks to Adelson’s urging. And that money doesn’t really care whether Todd Akin passed freshman sex-ed. For them, it’s an investment – and for Adelson, who is looking down the barrel of a federal investigation into his company’s questionable business practices, a friend in the Senate could be a lifeline.

Usually when a congressman runs statewide, he/she counts on sizable margins in his/her district. But Akin faces a different situation: instead of being his bailiwick, his district could be his Achilles heel. That’s because it’s full of the middle- to upper middle-class suburban soccer moms who have trended Democratic since 1992 in places like Fairfax County, Va., and Bucks County, Pa. Many observers agree that Akin could cost other Republican House members running for re-election in suburbs like this a point or two, just by association with him. Whether or not he can contain his losses among those women who know him best will likely determine his fate.

The good news for political junkies is that we may not have to wait long to learn the outcome. The race may well be determined by next week’s end. If Akin can withstand McCaskill’s furious TV/radio ad onslaught and stay within 4-5 points while holding McCaskill under 47 or 48, national money returns and it’s probably a 1-2 point race either way. If he can’t stay close in the next week, good night, Todd. The cavalry doesn’t do charity cases.
(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from POLITICO)

 

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