Todd Akin and Senate Poker

By
Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO)Photo: Jeff Roberson

The most entertaining Senate race in the country is in Missouri. That is, if you like game theory. The entire campaign is taking place beneath the surface.

Akin’s campaign has been filled with intrigue from the beginning. First, he won the Missouri Republican Senate primary in part because Democrat Claire McCaskill helped him win. A vulnerable incumbent in a state that’s growing rapidly more Republican, McCaskill knew Akin was the only potential Republican crazy enough to give her a chance to win, so she ran ads during the GOP primary calling him the “true conservative.”

It worked. Then, of course, Akin almost immediately obliged by offering his idiosyncratic theory that a victim of “legitimate rape” could not actually get pregnant. That’s when the games really began.

Akin’s comment became a problem both for the GOP’s national image — it’s the sort of line that can break through into regular conversation, especially for women — and also put in jeopardy what ought to be an easy Senate pickup. So Republicans set out to drive Akin from the race. Their calculation was that withholding any financial support and signaling that he was isolated from the GOP would drive down Akin’s polling numbers to the point where he recognized he couldn’t win. In keeping with that strategy, Republicans have issued hard-line pledges to abandon any support for him. McCaskill, meanwhile, is holding off on attacking Akin, because she wants to keep him in the race, and is instead using the lull to run positive ads.

But Akin can see what game the GOP is playing. They want to push him out of the race, and their deadline to get him out is September 25. If he stays in the race until then, at that point they’ll be stuck with him. And Akin today said as much:

Akin told reporters yesterday that national Republican groups may reconsider and back his bid to unseat Democrat Claire McCaskill.

“I would expect, if that’s going to happen, you’ll see it after about the 25th,” Akin, a Missouri congressman, said after leaving the House floor

He’s almost certainly right about this. If Akin is still within spitting distance of McKaskill after being shut out and scorned by his party, then he can still win if they decide to forgive him. Which, of course, they would. The stakes here are enormous. The GOP is right on the 50-50 cusp of winning the Senate, and if Republicans can pair a potential Romney win with a Senate majority, they could use budget reconciliation to pass the Ryan budget and take their one big chance to reshape the face of government. Without a Senate majority, the scale of their ambition has to shrink dramatically.

On the other hand, Akin may incur enough damage during his period as a pariah that he can’t win. And so his strategy can also be seen as a kind of negotiation, with him holding the GOP’s potential Senate majority hostage:

“Our polling data and everything says we’re going to win this race," he said. "That’s the plan and that’s what we’re focused on.”

“That’s the plan” doesn’t say “I would never leave this race.” It says, “I would never leave this race unless for some reason it became obviously in my interest to do so.” My unsubstantiated hunch has always been that this negotiation ends with some conservative organization suddenly deciding it has a new opening for the David Koch Senior Fellow for Ronald Reagan Studies, with a very nice guaranteed contract, and Akin is just the man for the job. Akin is probably trying to win his race, but he also has a lot of job market value to conservatives that expires September 25.

Todd Akin may be crazy, but he’s not stupid. Wait. Let me rephrase. He may be crazy and stupid, but he’s not unable to spot a bluff.