Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill

Credit: studio08denver on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–Despite the scandal that engulfed her challenger in August and choked off funding to his campaign, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill is still in a tense race with Rep. Todd Akin.

In many polls McCaskill is leading her opponent only by single digits and in one she lags behind the man who became infamous for saying that in cases of “legitimate rape,” women’s bodies can prevent pregnancy and “shut the whole thing down.”

Since then, he’s made a few blunt, controversial statements about the incumbent senator.

Just this week, Akin compared McCaskill to a dog playing fetch, which McCaskill’s campaign said in a press release could further alienate him from female voters, reported the New York Times. In late September, he commented that during her 2006 campaign for Senate, she was more “ladylike.”

And on Oct. 23, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Akin was arrested at least three times in the 1980s during anti-abortion protests, more than the single instance he previously admitted.

Federal fundraising records released Oct. 18 show that Akin’s campaign took in about $1.6 million between mid-July and Sept. 30. McCaskill raised a much heftier $5.8 million in the same period, reported the Huffington Post.

In the aftermath of the rape comment controversy, the Republican National Committee pulled all funding from his campaign and major conservative outside groups like FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and Crossroads GPS declined to support Akin, reported US News in late September.

In recent weeks, however, other PACs have starting helping Akin out. Freedom’s Defense Fund, which is run by Jerome Corsi–who wrote a book claiming that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States–spent $40,000 on cable ads running from Oct. 18 to Oct. 28. The group plans to spend a total of $250,000 in the race.

Anti-choice groups have also spent tens of thousands in the race in recent days. National Right to Life PAC spent about $28,000 on two mailings on Oct. 11 and 12 and CitizenLink (formerly Focus on the Family Action) spent about $52,000 on direct mail on Sept. 29, as well as over $8,000 on a “social media placement.”

McCaskill Fights Back

But left-leaning PACs are also getting in on the action.

Between Oct. 12 and Oct. 19, outside groups spent $2 million total in the race. But the bulk – about $1.7 million – supported McCaskill, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.

NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC entered the fray and spent over $16,500 on “list rentals” opposing Akin between Aug. 21 and Sept. 3.

NARAL Pro-Choice America has not officially endorsed McCaskill and the organization doesn’t discuss the specifics of endorsement decisions. But its Deputy Political Director Erika West said she found it disheartening that Akin “would find comfort in defenders anywhere.”

Martin Overby, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri who focuses on campaign advertising, said McCaskill would have little chance at reelection in a conservative-favoring Missouri without the Akin controversy.

As it is, Overby said, McCaskill is striving to position herself as a middle-of the-road candidate. A recent ad showing her outreach to the “median voter” touts how she took 50th place–smack in the middle of a ranking by the National Journal that measures how 100 senators voted on a liberal-to-conservative spectrum.

Steve Smith, another political science professor at the University of Missouri, noted that after she won her Senate seat in 2006, McCaskill picked committee assignments – like commerce and transportation – where she could focus on infrastructure projects rather than on hot-button issues that come before committees on labor and health care.

McCaskill also sits on the Committee of Homeland Security and Government Affairs, an arena where she can examine government waste and fraud.

While Smith said a Democrat under the right circumstances can still win in Missouri, he noted that in 2008 – when Obama won the presidency and a strong Democratic wave ripped through the country — McCaskill won only by 2 percentage points. “She’s running against the central tendency in Missouri,” Smith said.

Trickling Back Support

Smith said that while the polls shifted after Akin’s scandalous remark about legitimate rape, support could be “trickling back” to him now.

McCaskill’s task, he said, is to stem that tide.

Historically, he added, Missouri has a long line of fiscally conservative but more socially moderate Republicans.

Today, a more conservative wing dominates and people such as Sen. Roy Blunt are being elected. Blunt authored the failed Senate amendment to a highway funding bill that would have allowed employers to opt out of providing birth control in health insurance policies.

Smith said a current general election strategy for those candidates is to “stylistically avoid being too scary for other side” but to vote further to the right.

Overby said the top of the Democratic ticket could hurt McCaskill because of Obama, who is widely expected to lose in the state. At the same time, however, many voters will already be splitting their tickets. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon is polling ahead of his Republican opponent by double-digits.

“McCaskill is counting on people not pulling the Republican lever automatically,” Overby said.

In her ads, McCaskill has been drawing a fine line between calling attention to Akin’s comments without relying solely on them to win the race.

Earlier this month her campaign released a series of ads that featured victims of sexual assault, two of whom identified as pro-life but still refused to support Akin.

Overby called the ads “very hard-hitting.”

But during the candidates’ most recent debate on Oct. 18, McCaskill opted not to directly address the controversy, reported the Associated Press.

‘Extreme Views’

When she did mention the controversy in a previous debate on Sept. 21, she made sure to draw a connection to other policies. “I think Congressmen Akin’s comments opened the window to his views for Missourians…I believe his view is extreme and out of the mainstream for most Missourians.”

But, she went on, “there’s other extreme views. He wants to abolish the minimum wage…he wants to do away with student loans…he wants to privatize Medicare, privatize Social Security. He wants to do away with the student lunch program.”

Akin, meanwhile, is working to tie McCaskill to the unpopular president.

His ads, along with those from outside groups, often claim that she “voted with Obama 98 percent of the time.”

He also aims to paint her as financially unscrupulous. One video was based on a recent Associated Press story, which found McCaskill’s husband was at least a partial owner in businesses that received government funds as a result of some legislation that McCaskill voted for.

“To the extent that story gets out, it might be reasonably fertile,” Overby said, adding that McCaskill has not managed to portray herself as terribly empathetic or charismatic to voters and that many are “suspicious” of her.

But Akin’s lack of funds is preventing him from getting those messages out on TV, he said, explaining that he himself had not seen those videos on television. Akin has other ads on his website, one of which says that “the moment her hand came off the Bible, it went into our pockets.”

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