HANNIBAL, Mo. • Todd Akin has repeatedly apologized to Missouri and the nation for suggesting that victims of “legitimate rape” can’t get pregnant.
But he wasn’t making any apologies recently to the students at Hannibal-LaGrange University, a private Christian college nestled in Mark Twain’s home town.
When asked to address the controversy to an auditorium full of students, the Republican congressman abandoned the penance-seeking stance he’d offered in the secular world. Surrounded by enthusiastically Christian young people, Akin defined the conflict much differently.
“That was just a reaction to somebody who is pro-life,” he told them.
It was, of course, more than that. Many pro-life Republicans run for the U.S. Senate, as Akin is doing, but few find the national leaders of their own party lined up against them and demanding that they quit.
Still, Akin’s wider point was clear: Even in the religious wing of America’s conservative major party, he’s viewed by many as too religious and too conservative.
Those designations don’t appear to bother him.
Arguably back from the dead in his campaign against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, but still the underdog, Akin on the campaign trail continues to stake out positions that are well to the right of most Americans and many in his own party. He’s unapologetic in his opposition to federally backed college loans, school lunches, labor laws, the minimum wage, business regulations, the U.S. Department of Education and a host of other governmental functions.
“We’re facing a choice of two Americas, and two totally different directions that the country is going to go,” he said in a recent interview. “One of them is based on a faith in a lot of big government. I, on the other hand, have an extreme skepticism of the effectiveness of government on a lot of functions that government is trying to do.”
His comments to students in Hannibal recently were illustrative:
On gay marriage: “The purpose of marriage is one man and woman. What are they doing? They’re creating the next generation of citizens.”
On economic policy: “The economy is connected to the virtue of our character.
On abortion: “I believe life starts at conception … The question we need to ask (pro-choice forces) is, `When do you think life starts?’ ”
On his own political career: “I was asking the Lord, `What’s the next step going to be?’ And I felt He was guiding me in the direction of government.”
Akin, 65, a devout Presbyterian who was educated in a seminary and home-schooled his children, routinely begins campaign events with a prayer. He seldom lets a public appearance go by without a reference or three to God. He presents himself not as a politician with religious beliefs, but rather as a believer who also happens to be in politics.
“One of these days I’m going to take a class in political science to find out what I’m doing,” he joked with the Hannibal students.
His unabashed mixing of politics and religion is well received by the conservative audiences Akin is mostly sticking to these days. Students at Hannibal-LaGrange applauded warmly during Akin’s speech.
Whatever his critics hurl at Akin, there is almost universal agreement that he believes what he says, especially about his religious faith and his deep distrust of government.
“He certainly is a strong Christian,” says Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist who has emerged as one of Akin’s top defenders. “We can count on him to do what he thinks is right, despite all kinds of pressure.”
Akin’s overt religiosity can be a strategic advantage.
“The evangelical vote is enormous. It’s about 38 percent in this state,” says Ken Warren, political scientist at St. Louis University. “He’ll probably get close to 80 percent of it. That’s a huge bloc.
“He has no hope of winning the middle, so he has to get out as much of his base as possible.”
That strategy was in play at one Chesterfield campaign event last month. The opening prayer was a mix of religion and politics, asking God for protection for Akin from “slander and falsehood of his political opponents,” and for “a victory this fall.”
A succession of female speakers, including Schlafly, fervently disputed the Democratic narrative of Akin as poster-child for an alleged GOP “war on women.”
“(The real) `war on women’ … is pornography, it is sex trafficking, it is abortion,” said one of the speakers, Heather Kesselring of St. Louis. She told the women in the audience to “do what women do best, and that is talk to other women. We want to share the heart and the truth about Todd Akin.”
Akin’s political problems with women stem, of course, from his remark about “legitimate rape.” It was in an interview that aired Aug. 19 on KTVI, the St. Louis Fox affiliate. Interviewer Charles Jaco asked Akin about his hard-line stance on abortion, favoring a prohibition even in cases of rape or incest.
Akin answered: “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy) is really rare (in rape cases). If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Medically, the comment had no basis in fact, as Akin himself would ultimately acknowledge. But his repeated apologies didn’t stop national Republican leaders from abandoning him in droves.
That in turn opened up another Akin strategy that has had some success on the trail: to run against “the party bosses” in the GOP.
“It probably is a reasonable strategy,” says Warren, the SLU professor, because Akin’s base includes a lot of Tea Party voters who don’t consider themselves tied to traditional Republican leadership. “He’s standing up to his own party. That plays well in the Show-Me State.”
Another strategy, of course, has been to attack McCaskilll.
He has kept his central attack away from abortion, focusing instead on his claims that McCaskill is pro-tax, pro-regulation and pro-big government.
“We have a choice of more freedom and more jobs and less government,” Akin told the Post-Dispatch editorial board this month. “I believe the approach that Claire is taking is an approach that has proven to limit jobs, limit freedom , increase taxes and more government… . If I was Senator, I would go in the other direction.”
But since Akin made the comments on abortion, no strategy has resulted in big fundraising totals. In the most recent three-month reporting period for contributions, Akin took in just $1.6 million, less than a third of McCaskill’s $5.8 million haul over the same period.
The records show Akin’s money is coming in from all over the country, indicating that the controversy has spawned support for him from conservatives nationwide.