Two years ago, even as the Republican Party stormed into power in the House, a crop of hard-right Senate nominees flamed out and cost the party valuable seats. Now, it might be déjà vu as Democrats happily compare several new conservative Senate candidates to Christine O’Donnell, the tea party darling who infamously cost Republicans what should have been a surefire seat.
The latest is Tuesday’s Missouri primary victor, the six-term conservative Rep. Todd Akin, who defeated two more moderate Republicans better positioned to unseat the highly vulnerable Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO).
Akin’s past includes praising a militia group linked to anti-abortion extremism in the 1990s and voting against creating a sex-offender registry in 2005. Back in 1991, as a state legislator, Akin voted for an anti-marital-rape law, but only after questioning whether it might be misused “in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband,” according to a May 1 article that year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (via LexisNexis).
He still leads McCaskill narrowly, but Democrats believe that will change as voters get to know him. As a congressman, Akin has a storied history as one of few Republicans to vote against popular programs such as child nutrition and autism services.
In May, Indiana Republicans ousted 36-year Sen. Dick Lugar in favor of state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who famously says his idea of compromise is Democrats accepting the Republican viewpoint. He’s polling dead even with Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), the Democratic nominee. Lugar, by contrast, was widely seen as untouchable in a general election.
“The tea party has forced the entire Republican Party so far to the right. Their candidates actually make Jim DeMint look moderate,” said a Democratic strategist close to the races. “These are candidates who will to struggle to appeal to independent voters and that obviously benefits Democrats. It’s no different than 2010 when tea party nominees like Christine O’Donnell, Ken Buck and Sharron Angle ruined the GOP’s hopes in a number of Senate races.”
Republicans need four more seats to win back the majority — they’re defending 10 while Democrats defend 23 (including the two independents in the caucus). According to New York Times polling guru Nate Silver, the battle for the Senate is too close to call. The GOP’s goal is still within reach, but Democrats are liking what they see as the last remaining primary races produce some far-right candidates. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which runs the party’s election strategy, warned Democrats not to get too excited.
“This is nothing more than the same tired spin that’s regurgitated by Washington Democrats when it comes to every race, and it becomes hard to take seriously,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh in an email. “The reality is that Indiana and Missouri are red states, and Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill will lose in November because their liberal record of standing with President Obama on virtually every major issue is wildly out of step with voters in their states.”
Next Tuesday, in a close three-way Wisconsin primary, Democrats are hoping tea party-backed Mark Neumann pulls out a victory, seeing him as the candidate they’re best positioned to defeat. The Club for Growth, which helped unseat Lugar, is backing Neumann.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.