COLUMBIA, Mo. -- After 2012 the Republican Party vowed to drive unelectable, Todd Akin-types out of the party. Instead, they nominated someone for president who is far, far worse.
As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump arrive in St. Louis to face off in their second presidential debate, Republicans are having flashbacks to the disaster that befell them in Missouri four years ago -- only now it is happening on a national scale, and in a vastly more damaging way.
“One way to look at Donald Trump is that he is a Todd Akin, to the extent that Republicans have proven they will vote for unelectable candidates in a multi-candidate field,” said Stuart Stevens, a senior strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.
Trump’s lewd comments about women brings into starker contrast the total failure of the Republican Party establishment to learn the lessons of their loss four years ago. Instead of implementing their own party’s autopsy report, which called for respecting Hispanic voters and reaching out to women, they nominated a man who calls Mexicans ‘rapists’ and who has suggested that he was entitled to sexual assault because he’s famous.
Missouri was the localized version of this disaster in the last presidential election cycle, when Akin said that the female body has ways to prevent pregnancy if it is “a legitimate rape.” This was criticized both for being completely false and for Akin’s nonsensical suggestion that some rapes are illegitimate.
Show Me State Republicans still cringe about the galling parallels. Sarah Steelman, a former Missouri state senator who lost to Akin in the 2012 Republican Senate primary, said she thought Trump’s newly surfaced comments were abhorrent.
When asked if Trump’s comment was worse than Akin’s, Steelman paused.
“I just think what he said was disgusting,” she said. “And it’s unfortunate that people talk like that in locker rooms, that men talk like that in locker rooms. It’s troubling.”
She wouldn’t say if she planned on voting for Trump. Her husband David, who is also closely involved in state Republican politics, said he will vote him––but only because he thinks Clinton is worse.
“Trump’s comments were locker room talk that I find disgusting,” he said. “But I don’t find it disqualifying.”
When asked if he thought Trump’s comments would hurt the party as much as Akin’s did, he paused.
“I think the Akin comments were very damaging to the party,” he said. “I think Trump’s comments are very damaging to the party.”
The Trump and Akin controversies feature many of same attributes and even one of the same major players: Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist served in senior roles in both campaigns.
“You have Breitbart and Todd Akin’s consultant running a presidential campaign… that there’s going to be a good ending to this story for Republicans is inconceivable,” Stevens said.
Republican operative Rick Tyler takes a very different view. He joined Akin’s campaign as a spokesman after he made the “legitimate rape” comment and became a pariah in party politics. This year, Tyler adamantly opposes Trump. And he waved off the idea that there are parallels between Akin’s comments and Trump’s.
"No,” Tyler said. “Todd Akin respects women.”
Akin, who called Trump a “breath of fresh air” a few months ago, could not be reached for comment.
Unlike the current Trump implosion, Akin’s downfall could have possibly been avoided. But besides a propensity for saying awful things, Akin and Trump share another trait: a blasé disregard for the advice of experienced campaign hands.
In August 2012, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent in reinforcements to help the floundering campaign. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill was extremely vulnerable and although Akin wasn’t their first choice, they still thought he could win. Because he had already made a series of missteps, they told Akin’s team to keep him away from interviews. But his staff scheduled one more before the NRSC took the reins. It was taped on a Friday, and ran the following Sunday.
During the interview, on a local Missouri station, Akin was asked about his views on abortion, which he opposed even instances of incest and rape.
“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
It was a national story within a few hours, and Republican candidates across the country faced questions about “legitimate rape.”
Despite the outrage, Akin refused to retract his comment. Instead, he issued a half-hearted statement, much like Trump’s initial response.
“In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it’s clear that I misspoke in this interview, and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year,” Mr. Akin, said.
It was not enough, and Akin would later say he regretted the milquetoast apology .
“He didn’t think he said anything wrong,” a former staffer for the NRSC recalled.
Jeff Roorda, a former four-term Democratic state representative who is now spokesman for the St. Louis police union, said Akin probably would have beaten his Democrat opponent, incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, if not for the “legitimate rape” comment.
“They really sunk him, from the day he made them until election day,” he said.
In 2012, Republicans could isolate Akin––who was a huge political liability for them––and distance themselves from his nonsense. They could argue he was a freak, an anomaly, or an aberration. In 2016, however, that isn’t an option. The GOP’s biggest embarrassment is also its central standard-bearer.
In nominating Trump, the Republican Party has gone full Akin. And there’s no going back.
Contributing Jackie Kucinich