Akin comments expose GOP rift over abortion

Rep. Todd Akin’s controversial comments on abortion and rape — and the Missouri Republican’s vow Tuesday to continue his U.S. Senate campaign — have given Democrats an opening on an issue on which they enjoy broad public support.

In the past two days, party leaders in Washington and their supporters across the country have highlighted Akin’s comments to try to raise money, as part of campaign pitches and to revive the “war on women” theme that emerged this year after some Republicans came out against health-care coverage for contraception.

“If this isn’t a war on women, I don’t know what is,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the dean of Democratic women in the Senate, said Tuesday in response to Akin’s comments.

In a televised interview that aired Sunday, Akin said that women had the power to prevent pregnancies that result from “legitimate rape.” In rare cases when pregnancies occurred, he said, abortions still should not be allowed.

Three-quarters of Americans support allowing abortion exceptions for rape, according to Gallup polls. Among Republicans, there is broad opposition to abortion, but disagreement over whether the practice ought to be allowed in some extreme cases.

Many party leaders agree with permitting exceptions for rape and incest, including presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who on Tuesday called on Akin to drop his Senate bid.

But antiabortion activists and some conservatives — including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney’s running mate — believe that viewpoint is inconsistent with their belief that abortion is murder.

Sensing their vulnerability on the issue, Republicans continued Tuesday to try to push Akin out of a Senate race that they have been counting on to help return them to the majority.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) again called on Akin to drop out of the race, saying that he “made a deeply offensive error at a time when his candidacy carries great consequence for the future of our country.” Romney also called on Akin to drop out, saying that his comments were “offensive and wrong.”

Democrats moved Tuesday to tie congressional candidates across the country to Akin. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee noted that Akin was “far from alone” in his push to “redefine rape and limit victims’ access to health care.”

In a message targeting Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), for instance, the DCCC said he “abused his power in Washington” by supporting Akin’s calls for restrictions on abortion.

In a Nevada House race, Democrat Steven Horsford put out a statement declaring that during a failed 2010 Senate bid his GOP opponent, Danny Tarkanian, “tried to out-Tea Party his opponents by opposing abortion even in the cases of rape and incest.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is pushing to have more women elected to the Senate, asked her network of supporters to donate to Akin’s opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

“We’ve come to see how some right-wing Republicans will invent all sorts of unfounded, far-fetched theories to support their ultraconservative ideological beliefs,” Gillibrand said in an e-mail to donors.

On the presidential campaign trail, about two dozen protesters with the liberal group MoveOn.org picketed Tuesday in Carnegie, Pa., near a campaign rally held by Ryan. The group carried signs reading, “Ryan and Akin Agree: Only Some Rapes Count,” referencing bills sponsored by Akin and Ryan that would ban abortion in all cases and narrow the definition of rape.

Elizabeth Schipp, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, said that Akin’s comments would serve as “just one more tool in our arsenal to use against these anti-choice politicians.”

Before Sunday, NARAL had launched an “Obama Defector Program,” designed to woo women skeptical of Obama’s reelection back into the fold by highlighting GOP positions. Now, Schipp said the project plans to call attention to several vulnerable Republican congressional candidates, including Coffman, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) and Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.).

“Just when the Republicans are thinking and hoping that they’ve got this licked and they can move on to other issues, somebody like Todd Akin gets up and says something like that and here we go again,” Schipp said.

Some conservatives rallied around Akin. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins faulted GOP leaders for trying to quickly shove Akin aside. He called Akin’s comments “indefensible,” but noted that “when others have made mistakes, you haven’t seen the entire Republican establishment abandon him. I think it’s somewhat suspect.”

Perkins compared Akin’s situation to that of former senator George Allen (R-Va.), who came under fire during his 2006 reelection campaign for calling an aide to his opponent “macaca,” but didn’t face immediate calls to drop out.

Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative Eagle Forum, also invoked Allen’s fate. “They’re making a big thing about an unfortunate remark,” she said Monday, adding later that “the people of Missouri” should decide whether Akin stays in the race.

Helderman reported from Tampa. Felicia Sonmez in Carnegie, Pa., contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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