ST. LOUIS — Nearly 400 Missouri pastors gathered at the podium of a hotel ballroom recently to pray over the kneeling figure of Rep. Todd Akin, a Senate candidate whose campaign had been pronounced dead by national Republican leaders weeks before.
Akin’s political revival has become a cause celebre for this group of clerics and other conservatives, who have launched a carefully orchestrated effort to lift the GOP candidate back into contention for a seat that could help decide control of the Senate.
“People are drawn to Akin’s cause because they see it as the opening battle for the soul of the Republican Party,” said strategist David Lane, who has spent months in the state organizing pastors to fight for Akin, at times bucking the wishes of GOP leaders in Washington. Akin’s campaign, Lane said, represents the fight against establishment politicians, their consultants and “a morally flawed approach to politics.”
Akin faces an uphill battle against incumbent Claire McCaskill (D), who remains far ahead in fundraising and has a steady lead in the polls. But recent surveys show the race tightening, with Akin closing the 10-point advantage the senator held a month ago.
“What we’re hearing, in county after county, is people saying: ‘We’re on board behind you. We like the idea that you stand up. We want somebody who’s a stand-up guy,’” Akin said after the two-day meeting of clergy in a Renaissance Hotel here.
The revival spirit circling around Akin, who has served six terms in the House, contrasts sharply with the mood in August, when protests erupted over his comment that pregnancies are rare in cases of “legitimate rape” because “the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
Akin apologized, saying he had made “a very, very serious error.” But his poll numbers collapsed, and Republican luminaries — including presidential nominee Mitt Romney and strategist Karl Rove — called for him to withdraw from the Senate race. Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and other GOP operatives vowed to starve Akin’s campaign of financial and other support.
Akin refused to quit and has gradually drawn the support of notable conservatives, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who has visited the state. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) are expected this month, along with former congressman J.C. Watts (Okla.) and Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), whose Senate Conservatives Fund pledged $300,000 to Akin’s campaign.
The candidate’s strategists include battle-tested veterans: Rick Tyler, a longtime aide to Gingrich; Santorum adviser Andrew Boucher; and Alice Patterson and Lane, who in 2010 planned the campaign to remove three Iowa Supreme Court judges for their decision to allow same-sex marriage in the state.
The national attention has helped Akin raise $1 million through the end of last week, his campaign said. McCaskill reported raising $5.8 million in the last quarter, a record amount for Missouri candidates.
McCaskill campaign communications director Caitlin Legacki responded to questions about the Christian organizers working for Akin by saying, “Claire is reaching out to all Missourians — including evangelicals and other people of faith — because values like protecting Medicare and Social Security . . . are common-sense values that Missourians agree on.”
Akin has also been forced to defend other remarks, including statements about abortion providers and his recent quip that McCaskill was more “ladylike” in her 2006 race.
With the national focus on those controversies, the clergy’s entry into the fray has drawn less attention. Akin stayed in the background of the St. Louis meeting, organized by Lane as part of a “Renewal Project.” More than 800 preachers representing 14 Christian denominations have participated, some in a June event in Kansas City and others at the one in St. Louis, where an announcer intoned, “Pastors, we are going to war.”
The gatherings were funded by the American Family Association, a conservative nonprofit group based in Tupelo, Miss., that owns 187 radio stations in 20 states and that has funded campaigns supporting traditional marriage and opposing “the homosexual agenda.”
Speakers at the St. Louis event — including Texas Gov. Rick Perry — introduced political candidates and encouraged evangelical “awakening” and political action, but they did not endorse or focus on Akin or other candidates by name. Much of the program offered practical advice: how pastors can sometimes endorse candidates from the pulpit and invite them to speak at church; ways to improve evangelical Christian voter participation; and promotions for revival rallies, registration events and distribution of voter guides listing candidate positions on abortion, prayer and gay marriage.
Churches have been sponsoring some of those activities for years, but the St. Louis event, with so many clergy members participating in statewide training and political events, is unprecedented.
“Missouri has never seen anything like this,” said John Hancock, a former executive director of the state Republican Party. “Since evangelical Christians represent as much as one-third of voters in Missouri, it has great potential significance.”
Hancock, who backed a different candidate in the primary, sees an Akin victory as a long shot, especially as McCaskill’s cash advantage allowed her to step up her advertising campaign last week.
But Hancock also noted that Akin’s appeal extends beyond Christian conservatives to tea-party-oriented voters who admire his willingness to buck the party establishment. The alliance, he said, gives Akin a chance at victory that did not seem possible in August.
That sense of possibility was bolstered last week when Akin picked up support from established names. Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), who had urged Akin to drop out of the race in August, endorsed his candidacy as the deadline passed for Akin to remove his name from the ballot.
Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), who also had urged him to drop out, added his name to a fundraiser in Washington last week, as did Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). The fundraiser was held at the Washington offices of Akin’s campaign consultant, Rex Elsass, a veteran of conservative campaigns, including the presidential bid of Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). Rove and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) have not endorsed Akin. And former Missouri senator John Danforth repeated last week that Akin “damages the Republican brand.”
Some Akin supporters see the criticism from top party leaders as a drawing card.
“Todd is independent of the Washington establishment,” Elsass said in an interview. “He is someone who has been willing to say ‘no’ to the Republican White House and the Democrat White House,” references to his votes against President George W. Bush’s expansion of Medicare drug benefits and President Obama’s health-care law.
Akin’s support among Christian conservatives includes Gary Bauer, president of the Campaign for Working Families, who said his organization will spend “six figures” backing Akin. The Family Research Council, led by Tony Perkins, has announced a week-long bus tour for Akin and other candidates. And several Christian broadcasters, including Huckabee, have taken up his cause. The National Rifle Association is expected to endorse Akin on Monday, offering him grass-roots and advertising support.
Akin adviser Tyler says the campaign is on track to raise several million dollars before Election Day.
In the meantime, McCaskill has begun to air a hard-hitting wave of television ads against her opponent.
Akin has responded with attacks on McCaskill and the money her family has received from federal contracts, complaints that McCaskill rejects. But Akin lacks the resources to get his message out widely in broadcast ads.
Still, Elsass contended that with a well-organized constituency trained in grass-roots communication and volunteerism, “you don’t need to be the biggest spender to win. You need motivation.”