U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Wildwood, aided by a tightknit group of supporters, advertisements from popular former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and millions in Democratic television spending, pulled off an upset victory in a close Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.
Akin, who trailed in polling in the three-way race, beat a St. Louis businessman who spent $7.5 million of his own money and a well-known statewide politician.
Akin defeated St. Louis businessman John G. Brunner of Frontenac and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman of Rolla.
"First, I want to give thanks to God our creator who has blessed this campaign, heard your prayers, and answered them with victory," Akin said at an election night party in St. Charles. "Through the months, we have seen frequent instances of his blessing and are reminded that with him all things are possible."
The election was a coup for Democrats, who intervened in the opposing party's primary by spending millions on television ads attacking Brunner, while showcasing Akin's conservatism. Democrats believed that Akin was less likely to appeal to the broader electorate in the general election where he will face incumbent U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Tuesday wasn't Akin's first surprise victory. In 2000, he came out of nowhere to beat well-known former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary in the GOP primary for Missouri's 2nd Congressional District. That victory was attributed to Akin's loyal supporters who turned out despite bad weather.
Akin spent heavily on television ads featuring an endorsement from Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who ran for president in 2008 and won the Iowa caucuses. That translated to strong support from Greene County, a Republican stronghold in southwest Missouri with a solid evangelical base.
"Governor Huckabee, I thank you, my family thanks you, and our volunteers thank you for your dedication to our campaign and devotion to saving the America we love," Akin said. Akin also won big in St. Louis and St. Charles counties, which he has represented in the U.S. House.
McCaskill, of Kirkwood, faces an uphill battle to re-election. She unseated former Sen. Jim Talent, a Republican, in 2006. But she saw her popularity slide during the debate over President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. In 2009, McCaskill was repeatedly interrupted during a town hall forum on health care in Hillsboro.
A Post-Dispatch/News 4 poll released July 29 put McCaskill behind in contests with each of the three GOP candidates. But polls showed her best chance at victory was against Akin.
McCaskill never admitted trying to help Akin, but her ads against all three candidates told a different story. While delivering outright negative attacks on Brunner and Steelman, McCaskill's ad against Akin featured upbeat music and American flags. Her criticisms of Akin were more like compliments in a conservative Republican primary. McCaskill's ads said he opposed big government and wants to cut the federal departments of energy and education, and that he had been hotly critical of Obama.
On Tuesday night, McCaskill issued a press release saying: "During the Republican primary, Akin made statement after statement that showed just how out of touch he is with working-class Missouri families."
McCaskill went on to attack Akin, saying he wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare,
The three GOP candidates had few policy differences, and all stressed their conservative credentials. Steelman won the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and regarded herself as the Tea Party favorite. Steelman was state treasurer from 2005 to 2009 and earlier served in the Missouri Senate.
Akin said he had been a consistent voice in the U.S. House. He has represented Missouri's 2nd Congressional District since 2001 and is a former state legislator.
Akin's victory is a big loss for Brunner, the former CEO of Vi-Jon who bet at least $7.5 million of his own money on the race. Brunner, whose former company makes personal care products, called himself a proven job creator. He spent his money on a TV ad blitz.
"Folks, let's keep the battle going," Brunner said Tuesday night. "I think we've brought a new hope to the people of Missouri."
Patrick O'Connell and Denise Hollinshed of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.