For the past week, Rep. Todd Akin and the groups, like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, that once had his back as he campaigned for Claire McCaskill’s Senate seat, have been locked in an awkward staring contest. Akin would restate his resolve to stay in the race, in spite of his skydiving poll numbers, and once-supportive GOP groups would cancel a week of airtime they had reserved for his benefit. The rest they’d leave be, in case Akin gave up the ghost and someone else took his place. Both squinted, neither blinked.
Until today. This morning, the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled all of the remaining airtime it had reserved for the Missouri Senate race—more than $2.8 million worth, according to a document showing the cancellation—a sign that they have given up this Senate race for dead.
Stations typically allow political advertisers to cancel slots two weeks out, and can be flexible when buyers face an emergency (say, if your favored candidate makes himself nonviable overnight with a comment about “legitimate rape”). But advance is the watchword if you’re making reservations. If the NRSC desired, two weeks from now, to get back on the schedule, it would prove very costly. So NRSC’s decision to yank all of its advertising, today, is a dramatic one.
Their call is in line with a growing resignation among Missouri Republicans. Polling is still wacky thanks to the Republican Convention, but they are reading early polls as evidence that Akin’s numbers are indeed hurtling toward earth. Even as the GOP makes a concerted effort to get through to the few politicos who still have Akin’s ear (one former Republican staffer said leaders are even reaching out to folks who used to work with Mike Huckabee for an inside line), they are progressively more accepting of the reality that Akin may never budge. The staffer is already reviewing the tapes, tracing the roots of the disaster to Sen. Roy Blunt’s failure to pick a horse in the primary. Another Republican stalwart, when I told him I was covering the McCaskill – Akin race, replied dryly, “Congratulations.”
Initially, when Republican outside spending groups swore to pull their airtime unless Todd Akin dropped out of the race, a pledge forcefully rearticulated by RNC Chair Reince Priebus, who promised not a penny to Akin even if he’s tied, some observers’ response was a great big eye roll. “The Republican Senate committee, Crossroads, they want to beat McCaskill. And if they feel it’s beneficial to come in, and slam McCaskill without supporting Akin, they will,” said Dave Robertson, a political professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. It’s not overly cynical, given that at least one big player in Missouri is still hedging. On Monday, Crossroads GPS pulled a week of ad time they had booked for mid-September, but left in place airtime reserved through Election Day—a fact that McCaskill seized upon for a fundraising email sent Monday. Obviously, NRSC’s decision was driven to a great degree by polling. But it also reveals the outer limits of whose candidacy is acceptable, even in an election as high-stakes and nasty as this one.