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Not Just “Legitimate Rape”: How Claire McCaskill, Campaign Genius, Won Her Race

If you thought that Claire McCaskill was destined to retain her Senate seat the moment the words “legitimate rape” left Rep. Todd Akin’s mouth—if you thought that nothing could derail her march to reelection after he disappeared from the campaign trail for three weeks—then you don’t know Missouri.

It’s hard to overstate the lousy position McCaskill, once the nation's most endangered Democrat, found herself in before Akin made his infamous statement of August 19. Missouri was the lone swing state in 2008 that resisted the prevailing riptide of Obama enthusiasm. And in the years since, it has grown to pretty much loathe his presidency and his signature achievement, Obamacare. McCaskill is heavily associated with both. After months of dour personal approval ratings, she was sufficiently desperate that she skipped the Democratic National Convention. She also ran advertisements in the GOP primary designed to boost Akin—the candidate against whom she polled best—by helping him appeal to Missouri’s most conservative.

In short, Akin’s incendiary comments, and the exodus of Republican support they prompted, were a godsend. But a lesser politician could have easily squandered the political gift they represented.

Not McCaskill.

At the start of the week that I spent trailing McCaskill as she campaigned in the aftermath of Akin’s temporary implosion—long before I learned every beat of every joke she told at her retail stops—it became apparent that she was one of those politicians preternaturally talented at reading a room. Just so, she took the pulse of pro-life Missouri—a state patently unsuited to become 2012’s latest Sandra Fluke-ian battlefield—and decided that an all-out war against Akin with those words, “legitimate rape,” as her primary weapon, was unwise. And so, while the DCCC deployed Akin's remark in robocalls as far afield as Colorado, McCaskill, to the bewilderment of some, did not. She worked with the other batty material Akin had given her—his declaration, say, that government-backed student loans were “a stage-three cancer of socialism”—to cast herself as the consummate moderate. That moderation, which she had used up until then as a shield against Missouri’s Obama-haters, became a cudgel.

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Things changed just a bit after September 25, the last day that Akin could drop out of the race to be replaced by a more competent challenger. He didn't. And overnight, McCaskill unloaded on him with ads milking the shock value of Akin’s rape gaffe for all they were worth—hastened, no doubt, by the Republican money that would flood back into the race once Akin became their only option. But in the intervening weeks, McCaskill had done more than merely wait for the danger that Akin might withdraw, if she hit his rape remarks too squarely, to pass. Crisscrossing the state at a clip impressive even for an endangered Senator—McCaskill campaigns with abandon in unfriendly territory—she primed Missouri to eye his comments not as the latest volley in the tiresome war on women, but as his latest bit of crazy. 

McCaskill crushed on Tuesday. She wasn’t the only one to benefit from an opponent who articulated truly horrible thoughts about rape victims. Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who was overcome by Tammy Duckworth, did his poorly-polling self no favors when he said that instances of medically necessary abortions almost never occurred. Senator-elect Joe Donnelly may have taken the lead in his race against Richard Mourdock entirely because of Mourdock's comment that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” Akin, like Mourdock, is a study in the peril of picking candidates of the severely conservative stripe, without considering what that means for sensitive issues like rape. (Walsh is also just kind of a mess in general).

But only in McCaskill’s race was her opponent’s rape comment present throughout the general election. As the bite of the words faded, Akin's poll numbers slowly recovered, an inevitability Donnelly never had to worry about. McCaskill could have easily subjected Missouri to rape fatigue—and not the Jezebel kind. That she didn’t is a testament to the gumption that her opponents despise and that her boosters adore. 

Follow me on Twitter @mtredden