The conventional wisdom holds that Todd Akin lost his chance to become a U.S. senator on Aug. 19, the Sunday his “legitimate rape” remark went viral.
That thinking is wrong for two reasons. First, his opponent, Claire McCaskill, was never as down as Republicans and the Washington media made her out to be. The Democrat’s polling numbers looked bad, after months of TV ads by third-party groups who saw her race as a way to tip the balance of the Senate. But McCaskill had a good case to make. She was in fighting shape and had a road map to beat not only Akin but either of the two Republicans whom he defeated in a primary.
And even if you don’t believe that, the date of Akin’s dénouement is decades too late. The seeds of his defeat were sown in 1920, the year women claimed their franchise and voted by the millions. Akin, had he been around, would almost certainly have disapproved.
Women voters are the nation’s most effective buffer against extremism. More so than men, they urge caution in the use of military force. Polling shows they are more likely than men to stand up for the government programs that have traditionally helped children, the elderly and the poor.
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Take school lunches, one of the first issues McCaskill brought before voters. Any mother who has ever joined her first-grader in the school cafeteria would likely reject Akin’s belief that the federal government should stop subsidizing midday meals for low-income students. Moms don’t want their children’s classmates going hungry.
And women don’t want male politicians telling them how to handle their most traumatic circumstances.
A Pew Research Center poll released in March showed little difference in the percentage of women and men who believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Half of the men polled said they did, and 52 percent of women.
That means about 50 percent of both women and men support some restrictions on abortion. But there is a tipping point, and Republicans who pushed it too far toppled their political careers.
Akin was the first to fall. His contention in a TV interview that women rarely become pregnant as a result of rape because “the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down” made him the poster candidate for ignorance and insensitivity.
Richard Mourdock, the GOP nominee for Indiana’s U.S. Senate seat, stumbled fatally when he offered that pregnancies as a result of rape are part of God’s will.
Around the nation, other candidates sustained self-inflicted damage by clinging to their “pro-life” credentials, not realizing that the pro-life movement has pushed them to the edge of an abyss.
Reasonable people can discuss limits on late-term abortion, or parental consent before a teenager can terminate a pregnancy. But arrogant Republican majorities in state legislatures the past two years pushed the envelope too far with such things as bills requiring vaginal ultrasounds and the reopening of the contraceptives debate.
Abortion controversies ultimately intersect with privacy concerns. For millions of women, the spectacle of men like Akin and Mourdock grasping for a rationale to ban abortion in the case of rape looked like the ultimate invasion of privacy.
Missouri’s 2012 U.S. Senate campaign evolved into a rich saga whereby McCaskill, savvy and accomplished, crisscrossed the state talking about veterans’ issues, military contracting and help for farmers. Akin, meanwhile, played defense, unable to free himself from the “legitimate rape” controversy or his other extreme positions.
Exit polling by The Associated Press showed women voters going for McCaskill over Akin by a three to two margin, while men supported the two about equally. Younger women favored McCaskill overwhelmingly. In fact, McCaskill benefited hugely from a nearly 20-point advantage among all voters younger than 29.
In the end, McCaskill beat Akin by an astounding 15-point margin. Missouri, though no longer a predictor of presidential winners, may be a national model after all. Its voters have shown they’ll cross party lines to elect a good candidate and reject an extremist — with women and the newest generation of voters leading the way.