With his Senate candidacy under siege, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin on Monday walked into an 185-year-old former inn and tavern in Ohio to plot his comeback.
Inside the historic structure once visited by President William Henry Harrison and author Charles Dickens, Akin filmed a request for forgiveness. By his side was Rex Elsass, a national media strategist who remained loyal to his client as everyone else seemed to flee.
The firm Elsass founded and runs, Strategy Group for Media, is one of the leading political media companies in the country. It has about 35 full-time employees, a state-of-the-art media production operation and clients that include Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. The operation has "elected more new Republican members of Congress than any other firm in the nation in the last decade," according to its website.
"When we say 'yes' and go to work for someone, we promise to defend their reputation, integrity and character," said Nicholas Everhart, the firm's president. "We have a commitment to uphold right now."
There is a lot at stake, considering the national party's interest in Akin leaving the race. The firm lists the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee and deep-pocketed Citizens United PAC as its past and present clients.
Elsass wouldn't say whether he has been pressured by national leaders to persuade Akin to drop out.
"If I have, I choose not to view it as such," Elsass said.
He asserted that it's not his role to tell a candidate what to do.
"Our role is to be servants of a campaign and not their master," Elsass said.
Elsass has been in the business since 1994. He has long had a reputation for creating tough, negative ads. A Columbus Dispatch profile noted that his most infamous spot was for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce in 2000 that implied that a Democratic member of the state's Supreme Court took bribes.
The article said Elsass was once the ringleader of a GOP dirty-tricks group labeled "the nasty boys." That's an interesting contrast for a candidate like Akin, who won Missouri's Republican primary for the U.S. Senate without running a negative ad.
Like Akin, who is deeply religious, Elsass is a born-again Christian. He began doing ads for Akin in 2000, when the candidate unexpectedly won Missouri's 2nd Congressional District Republican primary. Akin had badly trailed in the polls.
"The pollsters said, 'Don't waste your time, he's not going to win,'" Elsass recalled. "Doesn't that sound familiar?"
Akin's campaign has paid Elsass' firm at least $37,500 in the last year, according to federal campaign records. Akin also paid Elsass' ad placement company $815,000 in July for television commercial time.
In an interview Thursday, Elsass detailed how this week's events played out behind the scenes, and explained why he has stood by his embattled client, whom he calls a man "of great humility and purpose."
On Sunday, Elsass learned of Akin's controversial comments as he stepped off an airplane in Columbus, Ohio. Elsass said he was just getting home from a retreat with Speaker of the House John Boehner in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
"I had about 150 emails," Elsass said, noting that some of the messages were from a worried National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Akin was aiming to displace Democrat Claire McCaskill in the U.S. Senate. The seat was a prime target for Republicans hoping to take control of the Senate in the fall.
Elsass said he soon spoke to Akin, who was already deeply embroiled in the political firestorm after he said in a St. Louis television interview that women can somehow prevent pregnancy after a "legitimate" rape.
"We talked about what he said," said Elsass, who was up until 2 a.m. the next morning. "We talked about 'the word.' I knew his heart and what he meant. He wanted to do something to reach out to people, and we began looking for the best ways to do that."
Within 24 hours, Akin was at The Gooding House near Columbus, the historic inn that Elsass converted into a political ad production facility, filming his commercial and talking strategy.
"His trip wasn't hiding," Elsass said.
Akin remained at Elsass' media production facility for most of Tuesday as he let pass a 5 p.m. deadline for him to exit the race without a court order. That afternoon, the party's standard bearer, Mitt Romney, had asked for Akin to drop out. From an office at Elsass' facility, Akin called into conservative talk radio stations and refused the demands.
Now the candidate faces a tough battle in a race where he was once the front-runner. On Thursday, a new poll by Republican-leaning Rasmussen Reports showed Aiken trailing McCaskill by 10 percentage points.
Akin was in Florida on Thursday for a fundraiser. In the morning, he announced on Twitter that his campaign had raised $100,000 this week. His campaign later issued a news release saying he will win in November but didn't return requests for comment.
Elsass said that the campaign will use the money to move forward with a media strategy.
"We are storytellers," Elsass said. "Our job is to tell (a candidate's) story."
He said the campaign is considering another ad featuring former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who helped Akin in the primary.
For now, Elsass said Akin's comment has prompted a period of "literal insanity" that will linger for another week or more.
As for how Akin will chart a course to victory, Elsass said, "Everything is on the table."
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