Will Todd Akin play ball?

The effort by panicked Republicans to push him out calls to mind a Democratic nightmare from 10 years ago

By Steve Kornacki
Published August 20, 2012 4:50PM (EDT)

There are probably Democrats having flashbacks today, as an effort by some Republicans to push Todd Akin out of Missouri’s Senate race builds.

Ten years ago, there was a similar sense of panic among national Democrats. Their party had pulled even in the Senate in the 2000 elections, then grabbed control six months later when Vermont’s Jim Jeffords defected from the GOP. But now with the 2002 midterms approaching, their tenuous hold on the chamber – their only slice of power in George W. Bush’s Washington – was in grave danger, thanks in no small part to the senior senator from New Jersey.

Robert Torricelli, whose political career began with charges of “gross ethical misconduct” in a Rutgers student election that was eventually invalidated, was reeling from claims by a Korean-American businessman, David Chang, that he’d plied the senator with tens of thousands of dollars in cash and expensive gifts. Federal prosecutors declined to indict him, but in the summer of 2002 the Senate ethics committee “severely admonished” Torricelli, who was seeking a second term that fall.

News of the reprimand lowered Torricelli’s already shaky poll numbers, giving Republicans a real chance of winning a New Jersey Senate race for the first time since 1972. This was a scary development for Democrats, who had no plausible path to retaining their majority if they lost in the Garden State. Still, polls showed an even race between Torricelli and his little-known Republican challenger, Doug Forrester, and the incumbent pressed ahead. Through August and well into September, Democrats seemed resigned to taking their chances with the Torch.

And then the bottom fell out, first with the late-September release of a memo from federal prosecutors that deemed Chang’s allegations credible and indicated there was “substantial corroborating evidence.” Then came “The Prisoner and the Politician,” a special that WNBC – a New York station with a significant New Jersey audience – aired in place of its nightly news. It featured extensive comments from Chang and the damage to Torricelli was incalculable. Garden State politicians can struggle to get 15 seconds of attention from the New York network affiliates; now here was one devoting 40 minutes in prime time to a story Torricelli was trying his hardest to ignore.

That’s when party leaders swung into action. Democrats’ own polling showed Torricelli’s support cratering, with Forrester opening up a double-digit lead. Election Day was five weeks away but the race was over; there was no way for the Torch to survive. The state’s statutory deadline for switching candidates on the ballot had passed, but national Democrats made it clear they wanted Torricelli to quit. State Democrats agreed; he was dead weight at the top of their ticket, a threat to down-ballot candidates for county and local office, the spots that really mattered to the party’s financial machinery. On the last day of September, Torricelli fell on his sword, dropping out in an emotional State House press conference. “When did we become such unforgiving people?” he memorably asked.

New Jersey’s Democratic leadership then set about finding a replacement candidate, but they were turned down by, among others, Bill Bradley and Reps. Bob Menendez and Frank Pallone. It was such an unprecedented situation, and no one was quite sure how voters would respond to a last-minute candidate switch. Finally, then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle weighed in from Washington: Give the spot to Frank Lautenberg or we won’t be sending you any money. This was great news for the 78-year-old Lautenberg, who had instantly regretted his decision not to seek a fourth term in 2000. By all accounts, his had been a miserable retirement. But for Torricelli, it was salt in the wounds. He and Lautenberg despised one another, and the bad blood had famously come to a boil in a 1999 Democratic caucus meeting in which Torricelli said to his colleague: “You’re a fucking piece of shit, and I’m going to cut your balls off!” And now Lautenberg was going to replace him on the ballot.

Republicans filed a legal protest, citing the expired deadline for switching candidates, but the state Supreme Court sided with Democrats in a 7-0 ruling. Voters ended up not caring much. Many of them, it turned out, still thought Lautenberg was one of their senators. By early October, Lautenberg was comfortably ahead and the New Jersey seat was once again safe for Democrats. The final margin was 10 points, although Republicans, thanks to gains elsewhere, ended up taking back the Senate anyway.

The question now is whether Republicans will be able to pull a Torricelli in Missouri. All year, they’ve been counting on knocking off Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, and doing so is key to their majority hopes. At the very least, Akin’s comments about rape have made it an even race, and there’s a high likelihood that he’ll make more trouble for himself – and his party – if he stays in the race.

The severity of the situation clearly isn’t lost on the GOP. There are prominent conservatives calling on Akin to quit, and Mitt Romney has now provided a forceful condemnation of his remarks. If Akin quits by tomorrow, Republicans can replace him, no questions asked. But if that deadline passes, they’ll still have a window; as long as Akin pays for new ballots, he could still quit and be replaced until Sept. 25. After that, it would take a court ruling like the one New Jersey Democrats won a decade ago.

But Akin will probably be less willing to play ball than Torricelli was. After all, Torricelli was relatively young (51 in ‘02) and was interested in making money in any post-Senate career. Thus, the threat from New Jersey Democrats that they’d shut him out of lucrative lobbying and consulting opportunities had real resonance. Akin is a different character. He’s 65 and a true believer religious conservative – one who, according to First Read, believes his upset victory in this month’s Senate primary was “providential.” And he owes nothing to the Republican establishment, which lined up with his opponents in that primary. No matter how much pressure Republicans now apply, it’s ultimately Akin’s call whether to stick around. And the usual incentives and threats that could be used to push a candidate out just don’t seem to apply here.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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