JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — With his first words of an election night speech, Congressman Todd Akin thanked God for hearing the prayers of his supporters and granting him victory in Missouri’s Republican U.S. Senate primary.
In fact, the only ballot item that received more votes than the Republican Senate race was prayer itself. A constitutional amendment on prayer proved to be a strong motivator for many Christian voters and may have contributed along with some atypical strategies in TV advertising to Akin’s relatively comfortable margin of victory.
As a result, the six-term congressman will be carrying the Republican message of change against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who has been in Washington half as long. It will be a call for change based not on the anti-establishment themes of the 2010 election but on conservative ideology that has been paramount in many of the 2012 Republican primaries.
How did Akin arrive as the Republican nominee instead of two others, businessman John Brunner and former Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who also were touting their conservative credentials?
Although the Senate race generated more public attention, the biggest draw for many voters in Tuesday’s primary was an amendment to the Missouri Constitution expanding the existing right to worship God with a more explicit guarantee of public prayer and a new privilege for students to opt out of assignments that run contrary to their religious beliefs.
The prayer amendment not only passed by a whopping 83 percent of the vote, but it drew more total votes 942,541 than any public office on the ballot. In short, Missourians were passionate about prayer. And that passion may have spilled over to Akin’s campaign.
Although Brunner also emphasized his participation in Christian mission trips, Akin has a long-established base among evangelical Christians. He had the endorsement of more than 100 pastors, including one of the nation’s most famous pastors-turned-politicians, former presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Akin also printed a special brochure, entitled “The Story of a Sinner Saved by Grace,” aimed particularly at churchgoers. In it, Akin described how he accepted Christ as his savior, gave up career ambitions as an engineer to attend seminary, served on the board of Missouri Right to Life and home-schooled his six children with his wife, Lulli. He said God had called him to work in government and run for the Senate.
Although not everyone who voted for the prayer amendment also backed Akin, those who did may have helped provide the nearly 37,000-vote cushion Akin enjoyed over the second-place finisher, Brunner.
“He was able to connect most strongly and directly with the networks of social conservatives across the state religious conservatives, home-schoolers, a variety of people,” said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Akin enhanced his standing with TV ads in which Huckabee praised him as “a courageous conservative” and “a Bible-based Christian” who “supports traditional marriage” and “defends the unborn.” When Akin’s Republican rivals criticized him for voting for increased debt and spending earmarks, Huckabee countered in TV ads that Akin co-sponsored a balanced budget amendment and voted against President Barack Obama’s health care law and stimulus plan.
Akin remained the only candidate not to run negative ads. By contrast, Brunner’s campaign began running them against both Akin and Steelman in early June. Steelman also went negative. So, too, did a separate political group supporting Steelman and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was backing Brunner.
Brunner’s own tracking polls showed him in the lead when his positive TV ads featured him speaking about his business experience, said Brunner campaign adviser John Hancock. That changed after the flood of negative ads launched by and at Brunner. Akin, meanwhile, got a bump in the polls after the Huckabee ads.
McCaskill also may have enhanced Akin’s image among conservatives by running a TV ad that described him as “just too conservative” and telling voters that Akin had described Obama as “a complete menace to our civilization.”
“Having this notion of Huckabee saying he’s a real conservative … and then having McCaskill say this guy is too conservative was another sort of seal of approval for people who showed up on Tuesday” to vote in the Republican primary, said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Akin’s primary victory means Republicans won’t be able to run a Washington-outsider’s campaign against McCaskill, as they could have if Brunner or Steelman were the GOP nominee. Akin first was elected to Congress in 2000, six years before McCaskill. Yet that doesn’t necessarily prohibit him from running a change-themed campaign focused on ideology.
In fact, Republicans in several states have nominated U.S. Senate candidates this year who are or were members of Congress. On the same day Missourians chose Akin, Michigan voters picked former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra to challenge Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. In Montana, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg is the Republican nominee against Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. And in two races for open Senate seats, Republicans will field U.S. Rep. Rick Berg in North Dakota and former Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico.
Two years ago, Missouri elected another incumbent congressman Republican Rep. Roy Blunt to an open Senate seat. He prevailed by linking his Democratic opponent’s policies to Obama’s while calling for an ideological reversal in Washington. Akin appears to be following the same path.
“It’s hard for him to argue that he’s an outsider, that he’s not like those people in Washington, D.C.,” said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University. “I think that the biggest difference here is going to be ideological.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. He can be reached at http://twitter.com/DavidALieb.
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