Rape remarks haunt the GOP

Richard Mourdock becomes the latest candidate to embarrass himself. Will it cost his party the Senate?

Published October 24, 2012 11:45AM (EDT)

When this Senate election cycle began nearly two years ago, the question seemed to be how big the new Republican majority after the 2012 elections would be – and not whether there’d be one.

But now that Richard Mourdock has become the second GOP nominee who has had to clarify that, yes, he actually does think rape is a real and bad thing, it’s hard to paint a scenario that doesn’t leave Democrats in charge of the chamber for another two years.

It was in a debate in Indiana last night that Mourdock, who crushed longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in the May primary, said that he opposes abortion even in the case of rape because “it is something that God intended.” And with that a firestorm erupted, with a slew of national leaders and groups loudly condemning Mourdock and with Mitt Romney’s campaign putting out a statement asserting that the GOP presidential nominee “disagrees” with his party’s Hoosier State Senate nominee. (So far, the Romney campaign has refused to say if he still supports Mourdock in the race.)

Mourdock later issued a statement claiming he’d been misunderstood and insisting that “rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick,” but the fallout from this figures to be severe, on a few fronts.

The first involves the Indiana race, which wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar in the first place if Lugar had survived the primary. As it was, Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite with a penchant for polarization, was still in decent shape before Tuesday night. Sensing danger after the primary, national Republicans had moved in and worked to round the edges off Mourdock, coaching him to avoid the sort of rhetoric that might alarm non-true believers. As a result, Mourdock was ahead and seemed on course to win in November.

But the headlines and attack ads his rape comment will generate could well doom him. His lead wasn’t overwhelming and Indiana isn’t averse to voting for a Democrat. Joe Donnelly, the (antiabortion) Democratic nominee, needed one high-profile Mourdock slip-up to win this race, and now he’s got it.

And if Donnelly wins, it will severely complicate the GOP’s Senate takeover math. They need to pick up either three (if Barack Obama is reelected) or four (if Romney wins) seats to win back the chamber, and Indiana was supposed to be a safe hold at the start of this cycle. Lose it, and they’ll need to pick up an additional Democratic seat just to stay even.

That’s a tough enough task, but it’s made worse by what’s happened elsewhere this year. There’s  Missouri, of course, where taking out Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill should have been simple for Republicans. Instead, the state’s GOP voters went far to the right in their primary and nominated Todd Akin, who then went on television to insist that women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate” rape. Akin is now very unlikely to win that race.

There’s also Maine, where Republicans wouldn’t have had to sweat if Sen. Olympia Snowe has sought reelection, as expected. Instead, she decided to retire, and now her seat is likely to go to Angus King, an independent who it’s widely expected will caucus with Democrats if elected. North Dakota, where Democrat Kent Conrad is leaving, was supposed to be an easy GOP pickup, but the race between Republican Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is close. Democrats also have a real chance at a Republican-held seat in Arizona that wasn’t on the radar until recently, and now seem more likely than not to knock off Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

It’s still possible for Republicans to win the Senate. They may end up winning many of these races, and they have unexpected opportunities in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. But the odds are a lot longer after Monday night.

Mourdock’s comment could also affect the Obama-Romney race. Key to Obama’s reelection is driving up support and enthusiasm among his core groups – which means, among other things, maximizing his already strong support from women. Republicans have been assisting Democrats with this task since 1980, but they’ve made it easier than ever this year, with a series of legislative initiatives and inflammatory comments from prominent party figures. News that a Republican Senate candidate is now talking about rape as part of God’s plan plays right into Obama's hands.

The real problem for the GOP is that this sort of thing keeps happening. In 2010, GOP primary voters ruined the party’s Senate chances by nominating several far-right candidates who were unmarketable to general election voters. With Mourdock and Akin (and maybe one or two others), they seem on their way to doing it again this year. GOP leaders will really be kicking themselves if Romney ends up winning the presidential race. Presumably, Republicans would hold the House under that scenario, but if they don’t retake the Senate, Democrats will have significant power to stall the new president’s agenda. But right now, there's not much that anyone in the party can do about it -- not when primary voters put such a premium on "purity" and outsider status.

By 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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