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GOP Operatives: Todd Akin Coulda Been a Contender

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Analysts believe Rep. Todd Akin would have stood a good chance to beat unpopular incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill in the Missouri race had it not been for his on-air "legitimate rape" comments, among other campaign missteps.

The epic show that will be the Missouri Senate race premieres Sept. 25 after 5 p.m. Central Daylight Time.

That's the last moment, under Missouri law, that Rep. Todd Akin can petition a state court to remove his name from the Nov. 6 ballot as the Republican nominee.

But even before the curtain rises next Tuesday evening, political operatives in Missouri suspect they know how this movie is going to end: with an unpopular incumbent, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), winning re-election. And that leaves some Republicans feeling a Brando-esque sense of regret about Akin: He coulda been a contender.

"After the primary, the race was Todd Akin's to lose - and he is well on his way to doing that," a Missouri Republican consultant said.

As a generic Republican, Akin had a relatively comfortable path to victory running against an unpopular incumbent in a red state. A Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey taken in August found only 39 percent of likely Missouri voters had a favorable opinion of McCaskill.

Even after his flameout spurred by talking on camera about "legitimate rape," and his subsequent abandonment by the Republican establishment, which has tried and so far failed to persuade him to drop out of the race, some Republicans watching the Missouri race believe he might have been able to craft a viable campaign against McCaskill. They said independent voters, deeply dissatisfied with the incumbent, might have been willing to entertain voting for Akin if he had hewed a communications strategy aimed at the right demographic and raised enough money to support it.

But Akin, never a particularly great fundraiser, doesn't appear to have raised enough money to run an effective statewide campaign. One Republican watching ad buys in the race noted that McCaskill - who has been up with about $500,000 a week in TV buys - was set to outspend Akin by about a 10-1 ratio over the next week.

Akin has appeared to have some temporary fundraising success running against the national establishment that abandoned him. His campaign called national GOP leaders "corrupt party bosses" in a recent email to supporters. But that type of messaging could have a negative impact in the long run.

The Republican consultant in the state bemoaned that Akin had alienated some Republicans with his emails after alienating Democrats and some independents with his comments on rape. Akin's messaging strategy, according to this consultant, is "like walking a tightrope in clown shoes."

Republicans underlined just how unpopular the incumbent is.

"You can tell, culturally, that people don't want to vote for Claire. You can feel it, you can see it," Missouri-based GOP strategist James Harris said. But the way Akin is framing himself, "he's not going to meet the minimum threshold for voters" who don't want to vote for McCaskill.

And regardless of strategy or tactics, GOP operatives expect Akin will not have the money to push back against a barrage of negative ads.

"He's out of money," said a Republican operative familiar with the Missouri Senate race, echoing the sentiment of many others. "When she goes up [on TV] after the ballot is set, Akin won't be able to fight back, and he'll be done."

The widespread expectation of operatives of both parties is that McCaskill and her Democratic allies will launch a fusillade of potent negative ads against Akin once the deadline has passed, holding back only to ensure that they don't scare him out of the race.

"I think she's going to drop the hammer on this guy after the 25th, and until then she's going to keep the powder dry. But [after], she's going to break out the nuclear weaponry," said a Missouri Democratic consultant, who, like many political operatives familiar with the Show-Me State, declined to speak on the record before next Tuesday.

The Mason-Dixon poll found a whopping 56 percent of likely voters already had a negative opinion of Akin while only 17 percent had a favorable view of the Congressman. So a strong negative advertising campaign focused on his "legitimate rape" comments and others could be a political death knell.

McCaskill aides played down the Sept. 25 deadline. They said a whole host of other issues, including Social Security and Medicare, have played and will continue to play a prominent role in their campaign's communications.

Akin's campaign, meanwhile, continues to stumble. It recently launched (and subsequently removed) a "Women for Akin" website that included a photo of a Democratic operative.

A call to an Akin spokesman was not returned.

Despite the missteps, if Akin had some help from outside groups, this could become a competitive race again. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee has firmly pledged to stay out of the race if Akin remains the GOP candidate. And the juggernaut Republican-aligned group American Crossroads, the sister organization of Crossroads GPS, said it has no plans to spend in Missouri if Akin stays in the race.

Democrats worry that, with the Senate in the balance, an outside group might change its mind. And that seems to be the one way in which Akin might find a path to victory.

"If it's a battleground Senate race, it's going to be tight," said Nick Everhart, president of the Strategy Group for Media, Akin's media vendor. "The bottom didn't fall out on Todd like everyone expected. And the hope is that GOP and conservative groups will come in after they evaluate the race on Oct. 1."

Indeed, if the last stretch of the campaign rolls around and Missouri appears within reach, for independent expenditure groups hoping to take the Senate for Republicans, supporting Akin may be an offer they can't refuse.

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