The Right's Fruitless Search for a Democrat as Terrible as Todd 'Legitimate Rape' Akin
It wasn’t long after the release of Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ controversial wheelchair ad — in which she used the image of an empty wheelchair to criticize paraplegic opponent Greg Abbott for hypocrisy over his fight against legal settlements — that a certain name began popping up next to hers.
“Todd Akin turns left,” read one headline. The ad “made Todd Akin look like a political genius,” said one Republican strategist. “Every Democratic candidate should be asked, a la Todd Akin, if they support this tactic,” the blogs demanded. Another tweeted, “every media outlet that demanded that GOP candidates answer for Akin had better do the same with Democrats and Davis.”
Akin was the GOP’s Missouri senatorial candidate in 2012, when he was on course to unseat Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill. That was until he told a local TV station about his opposition to abortion, comments in which he distinguished “legitimate rape” from some other kind, and said the female body had a way of “shutting that whole thing down.” The comments exploded, the GOP abandoned his race, other Republicans begged him to drop out. Akin refused and lost to McCaskill in one of the most remarkable political implosions of contemporary politics.
The GOP has sought revenge ever since. For conservatives, linking Davis to Akin is less about the electoral fortunes of the Texas Democrats’ nominee — who trails opponent Greg Abbott by 10 points and has always been a long shot in the solidly red state — and more about the sense of injustice that has lingered in the party since Akin’s loss, a conviction he got a bum deal from opportunistic Democrats and a compliant political media.
In fact, in the conservative blogosphere Akin never really said or did anything wrong. Rather his slow-motion disqualification signified what they’ve suspected all along: the media has always had it in for GOP candidates, whose every misstatement is blown into national proportions while their Democratic counterparts get away with murder. Like the war on women, a talking point which the right simultaneously denies and tries to invert, the Todd Akin frame is one conservatives believe was a fabricated critique that nonetheless applies even more so to Democrats.
Ever since, the right has been on the lookout for the beast they swear hides behind every Democrat candidate: the left’s Todd Akin.
To this quest Wendy Davis has been both a culmination and a catalyst. The search for the Democratic Todd Akin began in earnest with Ashley Judd, who was talked about in early 2013 as a high-profile challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Judd was brash; her comments about the patriarchy were more gender theory than polished narrative; she spoke unapologetically about rape. If your conception of Todd Akin was limited to a reductive understanding of his subject matter and a general aura of political ham-handedness, Judd could seem like she checked all the right boxes.
Thanks to Judd’s celebrity status, the comparison became a handle on the right, a way to neutralize an apparent threat. And when Judd decided not to run, the comparison lingered in Kentucky like a stink; more than 18 months later, it would reemerge against her successor.
Since then, conservative bloggers have tagged Democratic candidates with the Akin label, largely to no avail. Townhall trotted out the comparison against the last-minute Democratic nominee in Montana based on a comedy YouTube video. Other conservatives raised hackles over the absurd tweets of a man in North Carolina claiming to be a congressional contender but in fact not a candidate at all. (Those don’t even constitute the most random; one conservative writer named Claire Underwood, the fictional wife in House of Cards, as a Democratic Akin.)
The most high-profile candidate the GOP eyed was Iowa Senatorial candidate Bruce Braley, who was heard in a recording making a crack about farmers. It was a mild gaffe compared to Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments, but GOP strategists tried the “2014 Todd Akin” label anyway. It didn’t stick. Meanwhile, National Review tried to justify outlandish claims about Mark Pryor by claiming the Todd Akin playbook made overreaching attacks fair game. Again, it didn’t stick. With Akin’s brief, unwelcome return to the spotlight this past summer, the GOP’s spot-the-Akin game seemed to be sputtering.
Then came Davis. The filibustering state senator got the Todd Akin treatment from almost after moment her filibuster ended. The Daily Caller, one of the same websites that made the Judd-Akin connection, immediately labeled Davis the “pro-choice Todd Akin,” arguing her filibuster against a vicious collection of abortion regulations was the ideological equivalent of Akin’s opposition to abortion in all cases, including rape and incest.
The culprit was telling: it wasn’t Davis, the Democrats, or even the pro-choice movement, that the Caller was mad at, but the media. “The media asks pro-life candidates like Akin about hard cases like rape more often than it asks pro-choice pols like Davis about the abortion of fetuses nearing viability — even when the latter is actually the issue under debate and the former is not,” the website wrote. (Actually, the former was reflective of the national GOP’s 2012 platform.)
The connection reemerged again in January after the Dallas Morning News’ article questioning details in Davis’ biography. Breitbart compared the coverage of the Dallas scoop with the coverage of Akin’s rape statements and judged them outrageously unequal. (That one occurred in a majorly contested Senate race weeks before the election with the Senate hanging in the balance was apparently not germane.)
But once again the media was the recipient of the venom. “The flood of stories Politico unleashed last year about Todd Akin literally pecked Akin himself to death, the Republican Party brand as a whole, and most specifically Mitt Romney,” Brietbart wrote. “It is always important to note that while Politico is a left-wing news outlet designed to protect Democrats and destroy Republicans, it does disguise itself as objective.”
The groundwork was set. When Davis released her ad against Greg Abbot this month, the Akin comparison was the nearest critical template, and everybody grabbed it.
And with Akin’s name in circulation it was easy to attach it to other candidates. Fox News gave Alison Lundergan Grimes, Judd’s successor as McConnell’s opponent, the “Akin award” for refusing to state whether she voted for President Barack Obama. The link only makes sense if you define Akin’s statements as a “gaffe” in the most general sense, and even then it’s a stretch.
But the newfound flexibility of the comparison was shown in the next victim. Fox allowed Grimes to share the award with none other than Barack Obama, a point made even more explicitly by Rich Lowry in Politico Magazine (the very same Breitbart thought so liberal). “Because the Democrats and the press were determined to make it so, Akin’s gaffe became an albatross around the necks of all Republicans,” Lowry wrote. “Although it probably effectively ends her own campaign, Grimes’ flub won’t have that impact. The albatross is President Obama.”
Thus was the 2012 revenge complete: the statement that helped cost the GOP the Senate as Obama cruised to reelection had wormed its way around to Obama himself. It wasn’t the GOP that had its much-lambasted “Akin problem”; rather, it was the Democrats who were revealed to be lousy with Akins, up to the inhabitant of the White House. And lest anybody forget who was really behind it all: “Urged on by the press, the Left often mistakes its fringe for the mainstream,” the Washington Examiner wrote. “But Akins, as we found out Friday, tend to appear on all sides.”
Only if you have the special Akin goggles on. As the frontrunner in a pivotal race during a presidential election in which the GOP had a serious shot at picking up the Senate, Akin’s “gaffe” was a perfect political storm. Akin didn’t flub an unimportant state race, and his loss couldn’t be dismissed as part of a GOP losing streak. He squandered a major race with national implications.
And that’s if you’re generous and concede that his comments actually constituted a “gaffe.” Akin’s statements on rape were a prime example of what’s known as a Kinsley gaffe, when a politician accidentally says what he means. They were not misstatements, given that they actually expressed what Akin believed, and what an increasing swath of the Republican Party believes. Conservatives were convinced the media “nationalized” his comments, but the comments were nationalized already in the GOP’s radicalizing stance toward abortion and medieval understanding of consent.
So Richard Mourdock, who had unseated longtime incumbent Dick Lugar in Indiana’s GOP primary, was ahead in the polls when he was asked about Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments and essentially repeated them. Weeks later he lost, another of the GOP’s wasted 2012 opportunities. Akin’s problem didn’t get nationalized; Akin and Mourdock tripped over the GOP’s nationwide problem. Their statements, their connection to the party’s actual policies, and their role in pivotal races were all part of what made Akin an “Akin,” a portable political disaster.
But Davis’ filibuster in no way constituted a “gaffe,” Kinsley or otherwise. Davis didn’t accidentally disclose her hidden pro-choice beliefs; rather she vocalized a position that was grossly underrepresented by the GOP-controlled Texas legislature that had called a special session solely to force a base-pleasing anti-abortion bill. As was the case with Judd, only a superficial sense of the subject matter linked the two.
Ditto the ad against Abbott. Davis’ ad had terrible visuals in the empty wheelchair, but its underlying critique — that Abbott was a hypocrite for curbing legal settlements as a justice despite receiving a multimillion-dollar settlement himself — was valid. The ad earned its ribbing in the national press, but the awful optics were unrelated to its policy critique, something that more and more voices on both sides of the aisle are admitting. Akin couldn’t shake his comments because they revealed his actual policy positions; by contrast, Davis has not backed down from the ad, using the controversy to press her case against Abbott.
In short Davis fails all three requirements for an “Akin.” She’s not squandering a Democrat win, and her controversies have either not been gaffes (her filibuster) or not indicative of policy (the wheelchair ad). The same goes for Grimes; she committed a legitimate, bona fide gaffe, but it pales compared to McConnell’s dissembling over Kentucky’s health care website, an instance with very real policy ramifications. Same for Braley, whose gaffe is nothing compared to the actual policy positions of Joni Ernst, which include impeachment and nullification.
In fact, the GOP’s search for the Democratic Todd Akin shows exactly why they’ve been unable to find him. Todd Akin was never the problem; the GOP is.