In national spotlight, Akin and McCaskill seek to redirect attention to their differences
To hear political experts talk, the nationally watched contest for Missouri’s U.S. Senate seat boils down to a remarkable matchup between the Democratic incumbent who had no chance of being re-elected versus the Republican challenger who had no chance of winning the Aug. 7 primary.
But the two contenders in the Nov. 6 election -- Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood – have built their careers on defying their parties’ establishment and debunking expectations.
Each also has had his or her share of political stumbles, some self-inflicted.
Both say they hope to get the race refocused on the issues and their stark differences on matters ranging from the minimum wage to Medicare. Each claims the other is out of step with the state.
But for the moment, most of the national attention is focused on two other aspects of the contest:
- Its potentially crucial role in determining whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. Senate next year;
- Akin’s comment about “legitimate rape.”
Arguably the contest’s current toss-up status, according to some polls, stems from Akin’s televised observation Aug. 16 that women who are victims of “legitimate rape’’ rarely get pregnant because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
That comment, for which Akin has apologized, is seen as a game-changer that could help McCaskill overcome earlier odds against winning re-election.
National Republican leaders unsuccessfully called for Akin to drop out, and several major GOP-leaning political action committees dropped plans to help him with independent attack ads targeting McCaskill.
But within the past couple weeks, several major Republicans – including Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – have softened their opposition and now pledge to help Akin get elected.
“At the end of the day, that race becomes a debate about the majority in the Senate,” Blunt said during a national TV appearance Sunday.
Still, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney -- among those who initially had pressed for Akin's departure -- is not softening his stance regarding the congressman, aides say.
Ken Warren, a veteran political science professor at St. Louis University, sees challenges for both Akin and McCaskill in the coming weeks.
“My sense is, Akin could get his momentum back if he gets money,’’ said Warren. “He can’t win if he doesn’t have money.”
As for McCaskill, the professor said, “she has to overcome the perception that she is liberal and she is linked to (President Barack) Obama.”
Akin’s primary surprise
Arguably, the contest’s first big surprise was weeks before the rape-comment flap, when Akin was the unexpected victor in the Aug. 7 Republican primary. He had defied the pre-primary polls – and the Republican establishment – by handily defeating two well-known rivals: St. Louis businessman John Brunner and former state treasurer Sarah Steelman.
Brunner, who funded much of his campaign himself, had been expected to win. He also was deemed, according to polls, at having an easy shot at knocking off McCaskill on Nov. 6.
McCaskill has been accused of having a hand in Akin’s primary victory because before that vote, she took the unusual step of running a series of attack ads focusing on each of the three GOP rivals. To some, her Akin spot appeared to be more of an endorsement than an attack because the words used, such as “pro-life” and “most conservative,” are both attractive descriptions to many conservative Republican voters.
With Akin the nominee, McCaskill is now hammering away at his views, his votes – and his pitch for Republican help.
For example: Her campaign lately has accused Akin of dropping his longstanding support for “earmarks,’’ in which a member of Congress uses his clout to get federal money for a favored project to get campaign money from a SuperPAC with ties to influential Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who – like McCaskill – wants to ban earmarks.
Akin denies changing his position; he says that he always has sought “transparency’’ in the allocation of federal money. However, the Missouri Democratic Party has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging improper coordination between Akin and outside groups, which he also denies.
McCaskill’s campaign also has begun to target Akin’s missed House votes while he was campaigning this summer, as well as his votes for pay hikes that Democrats say run counter to his less-government image.
Akin, meanwhile, has continued the chief Republican line of attack against McCaskill. For more than a year, Republicans have accused her of being too close to Obama, too supportive of his policies, and too liberal for Missouri.
McCaskill has sought to counter that argument by highlighting her ranking as No. 50 -- right smack in the middle -- by the nonpartisan National Journal, which annually ranks the 100 members of the U.S. Senate from most liberal to most conservative.
Attacks over plane and stimulus
McCaskill also has been hit by more personal political controversies, most notably in 2011 over the private plane that her family co-owned and which she used for official business. She used her taxpayer-provided office budget to reimburse some of the plane’s costs, which is proper procedure and the practice for other plane-owning members of Congress.
But at least one flight and part of another were for campaign business, the costs of which should have been born by her campaign. McCaskill repaid the government close to $90,000 for all the flights to end the controversy.
But soon after, she then told reporters that her own examination of the plane records determined that the family was three years in arrears on property taxes due St. Louis County, where the plane was housed. The family paid about $320,000 in back taxes and subsequently sold the plane.
This year, as in earlier elections involving McCaskill, Republicans also have targeted the business dealings of her husband, developer/businessman Joseph Shepard.
Akin currently is running an ad contending that the federal stimulus spending “made McCaskill rich,’’ and alleging that “more than $1 million’’ went to “partnerships owned by McCaskill’s family.”
The ad is referring to $1 million in federal rent-subsidy payments paid to the owner/operators of five low-income housing projects, some in Missouri. The five are owned by partnerships, which include Shepard.
McCaskill’s campaign has countered with federal documents that show Shepard’s share of the low-income housing partnerships resulted in payments of less than $26,000, and a profit of less than $10,000. The documents also show that the payments were for housing contracts signed before the stimulus measure came about, although the money was allocated in the stimulus bill.
Akin and the Missouri Republican Party say they stand by the attacks, and the ad. (Click here for more details.)
Deep differences on issues
Both candidates do agree on one key point – they disagree on almost everything.
Akin opposes federal involvement in a number of areas, saying that larger government threatens freedom. He opposes the federal minimum wage and most federal requirements in the workplace – such as the Lilly Ledbetter Act mandating equal pay for men and women – saying that it’s improper to interfere in free enterprise.
He has been critical of how Social Security and Medicare were set up and notes that he voted against the prescription drug benefit for Medicare. He also opposed No Child Left Behind, one of then-President George W. Bush’s first bills to pass Congress and which mandates certain improvements in public schools.
Akin has voted against the federal school-lunch program, which involves the government purchasing foods and providing them to public schools, and subsidizing meals for low-income students. Akin says it should be a state issue.
He opposes the current program in which the federal government provides loans to college students, calling it "stage three cancer of socialism." Akin said he prefers the previous arrangement, in which banks provided the loans with government guarantees.
He opposes any restrictions on gun ownership and opposes all abortions, except in the case of ectopic pregnancies where the fetus is developing in a woman’s fallopian tube and cannot survive. He also opposes the so-called “morning after pill,’’ which can prevent pregnancy if taken within a few days after unprotected sex.
McCaskill takes the opposite position on most of the above issues. She supports the minimum wage, supports the Lilly Ledbetter Act, supports Social Security and Medicare, supports the federal school lunch program, and supports reproductive rights, including access to the morning-after pill.
She has highlighted her support for the federal student loan program, saying that elimination of the federal aid would result in most college students failing to qualify for private bank loans.
She does support gun rights, citing various bills that she has backed, such as allowing guns properly packed to be allowed on trains. McCaskill adds that she would consider proposals to limit the number of bullets in a gun’s magazine.
Tax cuts and veterans
Akin and McCaskill both cite concern about the federal budget deficits and the rising debt, but disagree over how to address it.
Akin opposed the last increase in the federal debt ceiling and played down the impact of any default. McCaskill emphasized that the debt ceiling was to allow payment for money already allocated and warned that a default could threaten the nation’s economy and that of the entire developed world.
Akin supports retaining all the so-called “Bush tax cuts,’’ in place since 2001, while McCaskill advocates their repeal for higher-income taxpayers. Akin says that troubled economic times are not the time to raise taxes on anybody.
Both have highlighted their support for the military and for aircraft built by Boeing Co., one of Missouri’s largest employers.
McCaskill also has promoted her work in the Senate over the past six years to improve medical care and benefits for veterans. This week, several military veterans supportiing McCaskill participated in a conference call in which they highlighted several votes on veterans issues that Akin missed this year.
McCaskill has been an outspoken advocate for protecting rural post offices and preserving Saturday mail delivery. She has called for action by Congress to address the financial problems facing the U.S. Postal Service because it currently is required to prepay retirement benefits for the next 75 years.
Akin says the postal service should increase the price of its stamps and other services to resolve its financial problems.
'Obamacare' and Medicare
But their differences are most stark when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, the federal health-insurance law also known as “Obamacare.”
“My first vote will be to repeal that thing,” Akin said during a recent forum with McCaskill. He cited the overwhelming vote in Missouri in August 2010 on Proposition C, which seeks to exempt Missouri from federal mandates in the Affordable Care Act.
Akin contends that the law is too costly and also limits “freedom’’ by imposing more mandates on businesses, insurance companies and individuals.
McCaskill defends the general aim of the Affordable Care Act, “to provide affordable, accessible health care for everybody and through private insurance companies.”
“I want to improve it. I want to change it if we need to change it, in order to accomplish the goals,” she said. McCaskill adds that she believes public support is increasing as people see some benefits, such as allowing families to keep their children on their policies until they are 26.
The two have tangled over the $716 billion in savings that the act is supposed to save over 10 years. Akin says it hurts Medicare, while McCaskill points to the law's stipulation that the $716 billion come from reducing allocations to health-care providers.
She, in turn, has attacked Akin for supporting the proposal of Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to shift Medicare into a voucher program for people now under age 55: People would get annual federal payments to buy their own insurance.
Ryan's budget proposal also relies on $716 billion in Medicare savings.
Akin has said he agrees with Ryan that Medicare, as it stands, cannot be sustained over the long term without changes. Akin notes that none of the proposals would affect people older than 55.
McCaskill says Medicare can be preserved in its current form by increasing premiums for higher-income people and by mandating efficiencies in how health-care providers offer services. She opposes any increase in the eligibility age.
Candidates differ on goals, if elected
McCaskill and Akin’s differences even extend to what each would tackle first, if in the Senate.
Said McCaskill: “I want to work on a bipartisan basis to get $4 trillion-$5 trillion off the debt’’ within 10 years.
She also said she will focus on “finding a balanced approach where we can cut spending, reform the tax code so it doesn’t further reward the mega-millionaires and protect the middle-class.”
She called for a swift focus on Medicare’s long-term problems and in advancing her proposals for the program.
McCaskill said she also plans to continue her focus on federal contracting, particularly in the military, and reducing waste.
"We are saving billions and billions in taxpayer dollars," she said. "This is something that’s going to take an extended amount of attention. This is hard work, grinding out reform in the bowels of government."
Akin sees two sets of goals, one for his party and for himself.
If Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins, “whatever Romney’s agenda is, obviously that’s going to direct the agenda of the Republican Party,’’ Akin said. Another factor will be the number of Republican members in the U.S. House and Senate, and whether they have control, he added.
As for Akin’s personal legislative goals, he said he plans to "clean up the mess."
One of his first efforts in the Senate, he said, would be “developing an energy policy and allowing America to use the resources we have.”
He also plans to oppose the automatic cuts in federal military spending that would be called for under “sequestration,’’ the arrangement that calls for automatic spending cuts and tax increases unless Congress reaches a budget deal on both by the end of this year.
“Sequestration is a massive problem,” Akin said. “It has to be dealt with. There’s no way we can ignore the tax increases.”
For stories about the issues and candidates in this election from St. Louis Public Radio, the Nine Network and the St. Louis Beacon, visit BeyondNovember.org. For a collection of Beacon stories, visit our 2012 election page.