Even before his infamous comments about “legitimate rape” demolished his political standing, even among Republicans, Rep. Todd Akin was the man Senator Claire McCaskill wanted to run against—she went so far as to run radio ads during the GOP primary calling him the “true conservative” in the race. During a Friday afternoon debate in Columbia, Missouri, we saw why.
The first question of the debate was naturally about the “legitimate rape” remark. Akin lamely tried to brush it off, saying “I don’t believe this election overall is about talk” before moving to his boilerplate points. But McCaskill brilliantly used the question as an on-ramp to her fundamental strategy: painting Akin as too extreme for Missourians.
“I think Congressman Akin’s comments open the window to his views for Missourians,” she said. “I believe his view is extreme and out of the mainstream. But there’s other extreme views.” McCaskill then ticked off a litany of far-right, Tea Party positions held by Akin, before concluding with the perfect rejoinder to Akin’s insistence that the election isn’t about talk: “So it’s not what he said that’s the problem, it’s what he believes that’s the problem.”
During that response, and in the hour that followed, McCaskill dinged Akin for the following radical positions:
“He wants to abolish the minimum wage, the floor for the middle class in this great country,” charged McCaskill. That’s true—Akin has said “I don't think the government should be setting the prices or wages on different things.”
“He wants to do away with student loans. Think what would happen to Columbia, Missouri if the only ones who could get student loans were the rich kids,” said McCaskill. Also true—Akin said that federal student loans are “the equivalent of the stage-three cancer of socialism.”
“He is one of a handful, I think there were four or five members of the United States Congress, who voted to eliminate the child nutrition program.” (True, in 2004 Akin was only one of five members to vote against that program in the House, though opposition to it has become more mainstream within the GOP in recent years).
McCaskill also blasted Akin for wanting to “eliminate the Department of Education,” which is true. He also wants to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department, for good measure.
McCaskill concluded the debate by once again summarizing Akin’s radical policy choices, saying things like “Cut veteran’s benefits, but give another tax cut to Tom Brady.” (That’s a particularly sharp, local dig to make, as Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl by defeating the beloved St. Louis Rams, who haven’t been good since. Also, demagoguing Tom Brady is generally a great idea anytime and anywhere).
Akin, unaware of the strategy or unwilling to combat it, actually helped McCaskill out by rattling off a litany of whacky positions most often heard from the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh—saying that Obamacare wanted to use death panels (without using that phrase exactly, but slamming the IPAB board which would “ration care”); hitting the Obama administration for a non-existent plot to take people’s lightbulbs; charging falsely that Obama won’t meet with Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, and so on.
In 2010, Tea Party extremism cost Republicans Senate seats in purple states that the should have won, especially in a wave year—think Sharron Angle’s defeat in Nevada, or Joe Miller’s destruction in Alaska. McCaskill is clearly betting she can re-create that trend in Missouri, and Friday’s debate was a huge help.
For more on high-profile Senatorial debates, read John Nichols on Elizabeth Warren and her race in Massachusetts.