In mid-2012, Republicans appeared to be on the brink of reclaiming control of the U.S. Senate, an impressive feat given the supermajority Democrats had mustered as recently as 2009. But that reconquista was delayed for two years, in no small part because two Republican Senate candidates in very red states crashed and burned after making inflammatory comments about abortion bans that did not include exceptions for rape.
The first, more memorable disaster was the implosion of the candidacy of Missouri congressman Todd Akin, who died this weekend at the age of 74. Expected to dispatch Democratic senator Claire McCaskill in a state trending hard to the GOP, Akin went down the tubes after an August 2012 interview that went very wrong, as Politico reported at the time:
Speaking to Charles Jaco on the Jaco Report on St. Louis’s Fox station, Akin was answering a question about allowing abortions in the case of rape. He said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Akin, who is attempting to oust Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, also stated that if a women did conceive after a rape, he would still oppose abortion in this case because “the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
The implied suggestion that pregnant women who suffered rape were probably lying about it was politically deadly. It played right into McCaskill’s strategy of depicting Akin as a right-wing extremist. Then, a few months later, Richard Mourdock of Indiana blew up his Senate campaign when he said pregnancies produced by rape were “intended by God.” The dual disasters in Missouri and Indiana led to a boom era for Republican consultants like Kellyanne Conway who counseled male candidates on how to sound less piggy.
Cosmetics aside, though, the central problem was that Republican politicians in thrall to the anti-abortion movement held extremist positions that were horrifying to your average swing voter. The anti-abortion movement itself had a pragmatist wing that was adept at shedding crocodile tears over rare late-term abortions (which troubled said swing voters) and that accepted rape-and-incest exceptions in proposed abortion bans as a compromise with political reality. But Akin and Mourdock said the quiet part out loud and let the strategic mask slip. The Republican Party paid the price.
The Akin saga is newly relevant today with anti-abortion absolutists in the ascendancy within the GOP at the very moment the U.S. Supreme Court may be on the brink of reversing or severely modifying the constitutional right to pre-viability abortions that has been in place since 1973. Two Republican-enacted state abortion bans are at the center of this impending judicial counterrevolution. One from Texas has been given at least a temporary green light by a six-justice Supreme Court majority on grounds that they cannot figure out how to cope with the law’s novel vigilante enforcement provisions. Another from Mississippi is about to be reviewed as the first frontal challenge to Roe v. Wade since 1992. The two laws have different pre-viability thresholds (Texas’s is at about six weeks of pregnancy; Mississippi’s is at 15 weeks), but neither law has a rape-and-incest exception.
In defending these laws, Republicans have two options: rationalize banning all abortions no matter the circumstances via the kind of inane arguments Akin and Mourdock made or just flatly admit that they have little or no respect for the impact unwanted pregnancies have on those forced to carry them to term. With the big Supreme Court decision in the Mississippi case (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) likely to drop late next spring just as the midterm general-election cycle heats up, the timing could be terrible for GOP House and Senate candidates. And Democrats, who are desperately looking for a way to buck the historic midterm trend that threatens its control of Congress, can be expected to make a very big deal out of their opponents’ indifference to the plight of rape-and-incest victims.