When Republicans play with fire

The biggest threat to the GOP’s Senate takeover hopes continues to be its own primary voters

Topics: Opening Shot,

Of all of the many Senate seats they’re defending this year, Democrats probably have the weakest hold on Claire McCaskill’s. Well, until now, at least.

McCaskill, who won her seat in the anti-Bush tide of 2006, and her party caught a big break last night when Missouri Republicans defied pre-primary expectations and chose to nominate Rep. Todd Akin to run against her. The 65-year-old Akin, who was first elected to the House in 2000, had been lagging in last place in the three-way GOP primary. But with help from Mike Huckabee, he rallied conservative evangelicals to his side and prevailed with 36 percent.

On paper, Akin isn’t that different ideologically from his vanquished primary foes, businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. All ran well to the right, and Steelman even earned the endorsement of Sarah Palin. What makes Akin a potentially weaker general election candidate is more his style – specifically, a tendency toward inflammatory rhetoric that pleases his base but that could alarm swing voters.

For instance, last year Akin caused a stir by declaring that “at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God.” And earlier this year, he argued that the federal government’s student loan program has helped push America toward “stage three cancer of socialism.” That he’ll make similar pronouncements this fall is very possible, maybe even likely, and under the general election spotlight the effect will be heightened.

This polarizing style helps explain why polls have shown McCaskill running better against Akin than the two Republicans he beat. A recent Mason-Dixon survey, for instance, gave Brunner an 11-point lead over McCaskill and Steelman an 8-point edge. Akin’s lead was only 5.

That said, a 5-point lead is still a lead, meaning that Akin enters his race against McCaskill as the favorite. Missouri was once considered a classic swing state, but it’s become more Republican-friendly of late, handing John McCain a (very narrow) victory in 2008, even as Barack Obama rolled to an Electoral College landslide. Plus, Akin’s efforts will be buttressed by a truly massive outside spending campaign by Republican-aligned super PACs, which have already chipped in around $15 million in anti-McCaskill ads. As yet, there’s no reason to believe McCaskill will benefit from a similar effort.

Still, Akin’s divisive style could seriously complicate the GOP’s hopes of winning this seat. Here, a rough parallel can be drawn to Colorado’s 2010 Senate race, where Republicans had a good chance of ousting appointed incumbent Michael Bennet. But their nominee, Ken Buck, ended up wounding himself with a series of intemperate comments (likening gays to alcoholics, for instance) that scared off swing voters who were otherwise inclined to vote Republican. Akin could have a similar effect on Missouri’s swing voters. At the very least, his nomination gives McCaskill a level of hope that didn’t exist for her before now.

If McCaskill does survive, it could save the Senate for Democrats, who are nursing a 53-47 majority right now. Missouri is probably the GOP’s top takeover target, and losing it would make their path to the 50 (if Romney wins) or 51 (if Obama does) seats they need to win back the chamber much harder.

Nor is this the only key Senate race where Republican primary voters have decided to play with fire. In Indiana, the GOP nominated Richard Mourdock over Dick Lugar, who would have been a shoo-in for reelection. Mourdock’s far-right ideology, though, has given Democrat Joe Donnelly a fighting chance. And there are still a few GOP primaries to come, in Wisconsin and Arizona. Last night’s result is a reminder that conservatives in those states might end up complicating their party’s Senate chances as well.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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