In light of the offensive and politically disastrous remarks by Missouri GOP Senate nominee Todd Akin, the Republican party establishment should be spending a good deal of its time these days meditating on a Biblical verse: As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
(For those of you who have been blissfully unaware of the controversy, Akin said that women who were victims of “legitimate rape” were biologically less likely to become pregnant because “ the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” He has since offered an apology–of sorts.)
Now Akin was not the preferred choice of the party leadership in the three-way race for the GOP nomination, but he isn’t an unknown quantity either. He’s a six-term Congressman and a loyal Republican foot soldier. He’s also a textbook illustration of the catastrophe that awaits the Republicans if they continue to count on the religious right as a key component of their base.
Akin is a true believer, in every sense of the word. He’s not running a campaign but a crusade. He views his political career as an extension of his calling by God. He’s a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, the breeding ground of ministers for the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), the strictly conservative denomination of which Akin is a member. The PCA teaches that there are no possible exceptions to abortion, which is essentially the point that Akin was trying to make before detouring into the world of make-believe biology.
It’s no surprise that Akin has the support of some of the leading lights of the religious right. He has been endorsed by David Barton, the discredited Christian historian who would like U.S. law to adhere to Biblical principles, and (of course) old crazy eyes herself, Rep. Michelle Bachman.
The problem for the GOP is that as demographics change, they are increasingly chained to a shrinking base that is disproportionately made up of whackdoodles like Akin. At the same time, the party has been assiduously courting these fever swamp residents. Bush’s reelection in 2004 was due in no small part to the party riling up religious conservatives over marriage equality. Sarah Palin’s selection as VP in 2008 gave the party a much needed shot of adrenalin (which happened to be laced with political strychnine). The Tea Party bandwagon drove the conservative turnout that results in Republican gains in the 2010 elections.
The establishment has counted on the true believers to turn out to vote. What it didn’t count on was the true believers’ unwillingness to bend to pragmatic needs, like winning elections, or to listen to the establishment. Better to go down in a blaze of glory than compromise on principles. Thus, we have candidates like Akin, who is just the latest in a distinguished line that includes other failed Senate Republican candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle and Joe Miller. O’Donnell and Angle managed to turn sure GOP victories into humiliating defeats. The only reason Miller didn’t was because Lisa Murkowski, the incumbent he defeated in the primary, managed to win on a write-in vote.
The stakes are higher with the Akin controversy, because the GOP is within spitting distance of capturing the Senate. Akin’s Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill, is largely considered to be the most vulnerable incumbent up for re-election this year. Or she was until Akin spoke.
More to the point, the stakes are higher because this year is a presidential election. The party leaders were faster to throw Akin overboard than they were any other tarnished Republican in recent memory. This was an effort to cauterize the wound. But it’s also an effort to conceal the real issue: a lot of GOP elected officials may not say stupid things like Akin, but they have essentially the same voting record, often motivated by extreme religious belief. Most notably, this includes VP presumptive Paul Ryan, who co-sponsored a bill with Akin that spoke of “forcible rape” and that would have eliminated federal funding for abortions except in the cases of crime and incest. None of this is likely to sit well with independent women voters. There are already signs that the controversy is sticking to the Romney campaign.
None of this bodes well for the Romney campaign, which keeps losing control of the story it wants to tell. First, it was Romney’s taxes, then it was the Ryan budget. Now it’s a woman’s right to choose. Every day that goes by with the story about something other than President Obama’s performance on the economy is another losing day for Romney.
In the meantime, the GOP can only afford to anger the nutburgers so much. Romney is already suspect on social issues because he’s been on both sides of most of them. For now, the party is stuck with the Akins of the world as part of its strategy to succeed. Perhaps in addition to the Bible, the party leaders may also want to remember another old saying that comes to mind: Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.