With a single interview that aired Sunday, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) created a giant political headache for his entire party. But if he ends his Senate bid soon (a big if, considering his apparent willingness to press ahead the last couple of days), he will deliver a huge dose of political aspirin to the entire GOP. And his controversial comments might well end up as a net positive for his party's chances to reclaim the Senate majority.
When Akin said "legitimate rape" rarely causes pregnancy,he not only ensured his words would dominate the news cycle, but also forced responses on a sensitive topic from Republicans across the country, the majority of whom swiftly denounced his remarks.
Akin's words are exactly not what the GOP as a whole needs right now -- especially in the week before it will officially nominate Mitt Romney for president at the Tampa convention -- but if the harsh intraparty response to his remarks is enough to force Akin from the Missouri race, the entire chain of events could actually boost the GOP's chances of defeating Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in a critical contest in the larger battle for control of the upper chamber.
Akin was the candidate Democrats wanted to run against well before his remarks about rape and abortion made national news. He had a history of controversial comments, far-right political positions, and a shaky campaign that shook up its staff at the end of last year. Most Republican strategists with an eye on defeating the vulnerable McCaskill privately acknowledged that Akin would be the weakest candidate for the general election, and hoped he did not emerge as the GOP nominee.
But he did. And in the time since he won the Republican nomination to face McCaskill on Aug. 7, Akin has stoked outrage with a claim about rape and pregnancy, called for an end to federal support for the National School Lunch Program, reinforced a prior statement comparing federal student loans to stage 3 cancer, and said civil rights should be re-litigated.
For Akin, controversy is nothing new. Given more opportunities in the campaign, one could reasonably expect him to make more even more claims that either are not based in fact, are extreme, or are both.
But until his "legitimate rape" comments, Akin hadn't said anything that prompted such a swift national backlash from his own party. His one huge gaffe immediately alienated him from mainstream Republicans in a way he had never experienced.
Arguably, a big disaster now for the GOP in Missouri is preferable to a series of smaller scale rough patches heading toward November. Worse yet for the GOP, he could have made a major gaffe after Sept. 25, the point at which it would be too late for him to drop out of the race.
But now, Republicans have a chance to change course. They are applying immense pressure on Akin to get out of the race. If he does so, the GOP state central committee can choose a replacement for him.
No matter who they choose, the GOP could hardly be worse off than it is with Akin. Names mentioned as possibilities in Missouri circles include businessman John Brunner, Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Jo Ann Emerson, former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, state Auditor Tom Schweich, and former senator Jim Talent (who says he is not interested), among others.
Indeed, if Akin is replaced, some social conservatives who support him might no longer be galvanized to vote. For the GOP, that could be worth the ability to compete for the rest of the electorate. Democrats, meanwhile, could justifiably point to a mess on the Republican side and criticize the party for having to hand pick a nominee after voters selected one that fell flat. But that's a process argument. And process arguments rarely move the needle.
The glaring problem for Republicans right now is that Akin does not at all appear ready to step aside. He released an apology ad Tuesday. He said in media interviews Monday that he plans to continue campaigning. And he's not a candidate who has a history of listening to advice from the GOP establishment.
If Akin does not drop out, Republicans are left in the worst case scenario. Missouri, long considered a top pickup opportunity for the GOP, could be the race that prevents Republicans from seizing back the Senate majority.