Missouri's Senate contest may reveal how conservative the state is

2012-08-09T00:00:00Z 2013-05-15T11:25:53Z Missouri's Senate contest may reveal how conservative the state isBY NICHOLAS J.C. PISTOR • npistor@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8265 And BILL LAMBRECHT • blambrecht@post-dispatch.com > 202-298-6880 stltoday.com

There's one certainty in this fall's U.S. Senate race: The scary music is coming back.

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin was propelled to victory in a contentious GOP primary in part by a helping hand from the opposing Democratic Party, which aired television ads that burnished Akin's conservative reputation with American flags and uplifting music. It was a bet that Akin would be the weakest candidate to face incumbent U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in November. But some experts say it was also a bet that Missouri is more moderate than its growing conservative image.

"This is going to be a test to see how conservative Missouri really is," said Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University.

After Akin's victory, McCaskill's campaign stopped playing nice and put up a website, TruthAboutAkin.com, which skewers Akin for allegedly siding with special interests and taking "extreme positions" on Social Security and other issues.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee declared ominously that voters soon would be learning more about Akin, a "Tea Party congressman" who "has compared student loans to stage-three cancer, suggested that Medicare is unconstitutional and claimed that 'the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God.'"

Akin's touchstone is a loyal base of churchgoing conservatives who show up at the polls no matter what, a voting bloc likely to be unaffected by such attacks.

"That could work for him," Warren said. "The Tea Party movement is strong, and the evangelical vote is big."

Akin, a deeply religious man, has long been a favorite of evangelicals.

White evangelical Christians who said they are born again made up 39 percent of Missouri's electorate in 2008, according to exit poll data. That is 13 points higher than the national average of 26 percent.

Those voters showed up for Akin on Tuesday. He won the evangelical-rich territory of southwest Missouri and most of the counties along the Arkansas border. On top of that, he won big victories in the St. Louis area, where he has been a U.S. representative for more than 10 years. Akin won convincingly in St. Louis and St. Charles counties, which make up a considerable portion of the overall electorate. Franklin was the only St. Louis-area county Akin didn't win.

Akin's television ads during the primary barely contained a word from the actual candidate, instead relying on others, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained minister who won the GOP presidential Iowa caucuses in 2008.

Huckabee said he would do more commercials for Akin in the fall, if asked.

"Todd Akin is an unusual politician," Huckabee said Wednesday. "He doesn't go out and trash other people."

Akin, who thanked Huckabee in his victory speech on Tuesday night, was far less negative than his opponents in the primary.

Ryan Hite, an Akin spokesman, said the congressman would maintain that outlook in the fall, but ads run by supportive outside groups "is not something we can control."

Outside groups, including Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-affiliated 'super-PAC," have spent millions on ads so far to attack McCaskill on her support of President Barack Obama in the health care and stimulus spending fights. More is expected to come.

In response, McCaskill and Democrats signaled that they will wage a hard-edged campaign against Akin, an effort that could be modeled after successful Democratic campaigns in Nevada and Colorado two years ago against GOP candidates similar to Akin.

GOP establishment forces in Washington may have been rooting for St. Louis businessman John Brunner in part for financial reasons. Had Brunner triumphed as polls predicted, he likely would have continued to self-fund his campaign to a large extent, allowing Republicans nationally to direct their spending to Senate races other than Missouri's.

Asked if the National Republican Senatorial Committee was disappointed in the outcome, spokesman Lance Trover said no.

"This race will be a referendum on Claire McCaskill and how she turned her back on the people of Missouri in favor of Barack Obama and his far-left agenda," Trover said.

Stu Rothenberg, a national commentator and author of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said Akin's election had not prompted him to change his assessment of Missouri from "tossup, tilt Republican" to a category more favorable to McCaskill.

Looking ahead to the general election campaign, Rothenberg suggested that Akin could find himself disadvantaged if he continues his practice of not running negative ads.

"Is it possible to run nothing but positive ads in a competitive state and beat a candidate who's pounding you? I've never seen that happen," he said.

Akin's winning surge was the topic of conversation in political circles. His late momentum was picked up on private polls in late July and by a Public Policy Polling survey just before the election.

But as recently as July 23-25, a Post-Dispatch/News 4 survey showed Akin buried in third place. Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, the Washington-based firm that conducted the survey, said that voters in multiparty Republican primaries often switch their allegiances or realign behind a dark horse candidate just before the election.

He likened Missouri's outcome to the GOP Senate primary in Nebraska in May, when little-known state legislator Deb Fischer emerged in the campaign's final hours to defeat an establishment Republican and a Tea Party favorite.

"Democrats may have drawn the candidate that offers them the best chance of winning, but that doesn't mean that McCaskill is the favorite. People might pay attention to what she says about Akin, but they also might tune it out," Coker said.

Akin's tasks in the days ahead may need to include knitting together Tea Party forces who divided their allegiances in the primary. Akin had the backing of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who heads the Tea Party Caucus in Congress.

But the California-based Tea Party Express worked on Sarah Steelman's behalf, as did former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Meanwhile, John Brunner won the backing of FreedomWorks, a key Tea Party organization based in Washington.

Tea Party Express founder Sal Russo said Wednesday he believed that Steelman would have been the strongest candidate against McCaskill. But now, he said, it's time to unite behind Akin.

"When we can get most of the Tea Party people together, it's an awesome force," he said.

Nick Pistor covers politics for the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/nickpistor

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