Can a campaign strategy work too well?
With the novel tactic of giving targeted help to the other side, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., got the opponent she wanted from the Aug. 7 Republican Senate primary. Congressman Todd Akin beat out two primary opponents after McCaskill ran supposed "attack" ads against Akin that were outright flattering in the eyes of conservatives.
But now, the very quality that made Akin such a perfect foil for McCaskill -- his unapologetically far-right stance on just about everything -- has blown up his candidacy, and could yet drive him off the general election ballot.
If that happens, McCaskill could quickly find herself facing a less controversial opponent, one not tied to phrases like "legitimate rape." Perhaps one even tougher than the also-rans from the primary.
And then she could quickly find herself once again designated as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat in the nation.
"Obviously (Akin) is a very vulnerable candidate right now," noted Dave Robertson, political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "It's going to be easier to beat him" than to beat any potential replacement.
Which may explain why McCaskill was one of the few players in the Akin drama defending his right to stay on the ballot.
Akin on Tuesday repeatedly vowed to remain on the Nov. 6 ballot, after saying in a television interview aired Sunday that rape-induced pregnancy is "really rare," because in "legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
That notion, which isn't medically supported, has been used in some corners of the anti-abortion movement to argue against rape exceptions to anti-abortion laws.
Republicans, fearing Akin would cost them a chance to take down the nation's weakest Senate Democrat, frantically called for him to take his name off the ballot so the party can appoint a new candidate. But McCaskill preached patience.
"It's not my place to decide. ... The people of Missouri have to make this decision," McCaskill said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Monday, hours after the Akin story broke Sunday. To drive him from the ballot, she said, would be a "radical" message to "the voters of the Republican primary."
While McCaskill condemned the substance of what Akin said, she added: "They had a hotly contested three-way primary, and Todd Akin won by a comfortable margin, and was supported by many very strongly. He has some passionate supporters."
By Monday afternoon, talking with reporters at a campaign event in Festus, McCaskill's tone was outright sympathetic.
"I take him at his word that he realized what he said was wrong," said McCaskill. "I honestly do have sympathy for him. I think there are some big people in the party that are trying to pull the rug out from underneath Missouri voters."
It's standard practice in politics to stay silent when an opponent is self-destructing, but to come to the opponent's defense is unusual.
"It should not be lost on anyone that some of the only voices not calling for Congressman Akin to do the right thing and step aside are Claire McCaskill and the leaders of the pro-abortion movement," the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement Tuesday. "Senator McCaskill knows that the only way she wins re-election is if Todd Akin is her opponent in November."
Akin has received some support from cultural conservatives, including activist Phyllis Schlafly. But the overwhelming sentiment from state and national leaders has been that he should leave the ballot.
Akin missed the first deadline for leaving the race on Tuesday, but not the last one. Until Sept. 25, he can still exit the ballot by seeking a court order.
Akin went into the Aug. 7 primaries facing two opponents, former Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman and businessman John Brunner, both of whom were better-funded than Akin and considered more electable in a general election because of Akin's conservative views. A Post-Dispatch poll at one point had Akin trailing both.
McCaskill, who faced no opponent in her own primary, took the unusual step of nosing into the GOP primary, running ads against all three candidates. Her ads against Brunner and Steelman were classic attack ads, but the ones against Akin raised eyebrows.
One TV ad showed Akin sitting in front of an American flag, talking with constituents and looking serious, as a narrator declares him "Missouri's true conservative." Akin is "the most conservative congressman in Missouri," said the narrator. He's "a crusader against bigger government" and has a "pro-family agenda."
Although McCaskill hasn't acknowledged it, the point was clear. Politico, the online political website, called the strategy "a blatant appeal to devoted conservatives who decide GOP primary contests." After Akin won the primary, the website announced: "McCaskill gets her opponent."
On the "Morning Joe" appearance Monday, host Joe Scarborough made reference to that dynamic after McCaskill said it wasn't her place to tell Akin to leave the race. "Senator, you say it's not your place, but you did get involved in the primary yourself, because you wanted Todd Akin to win, right?" Scarborough asked.
McCaskill responded that her goal was merely to "try to point out to the independent voters of Missouri that his positions were so far out of the mainstream."
Robertson, the UMSL political science professor, said a strategy of helping Akin get the nomination would be a logical one in any case, because of Akin's long-standing and often controversial conservatism. "You didn't have to know he was going to implode so spectacularly to know he had a record in Congress that was going to be a problem" in a statewide Senate race.
Robertson added that, even if Akin does step down and is replaced by a stronger candidate, McCaskill doesn't necessary go back to square one.
"They (the GOP) would be at a tremendous disadvantage if they get into it in late September" in terms of organization and fundraising, he said. "And there's a lot of people in the base of the Republican Party who admired Akin's social conservativism and might not come out" to vote in the general election if he is not on the ballot.
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