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In August of 2012, the Missouri organization I head voted to endorse Todd Akin for Senate. One day later, he opined that subsidized school lunches were a bad idea. Three days later, he made his now famous comments on rape.
A couple of days after Akin’s self-immolation, I had a conversation with a long-time Missouri Republican leader, an elected official who has long been a friend of our organization. He had famously called upon Akin to leave the race, and his disgust with our standard-bearer was palpable. Akin’s propensity to shoot himself in the foot was no surprise to those who followed Missouri politics closely. As my friend said: “He should have said nothing for the whole campaign except, ‘My name is Todd Akin and I paid for this ad.'”
Akin’s lack of self awareness was well known to his general election opponent as well, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting Akin in the three-way Republican primary. In a meeting I’d had with her before the primary, she told me that Akin would be the eventual winner. I thought she was letting her hopes overwhelm her considerable political skills. I didn’t know she was financing his amateurish campaign, ensuring that she got to pick her opponent.
We re-polled our members, asking them if they’d like to reconsider their endorsement. We allowed Mr. Akin the chance to plead his case. It wasn’t even close. Our members doubled down on Mr. Akin, blamed the media for the firestorm, and I had my marching orders.
We spent six weeks fielding calls from irate members cancelling their membership. We had to have coaching sessions with our employees responsible for answering the phone, trying as best we could to keep their spirits up. The New York Times visited one of our local offices in rural Missouri, looking for some primitive who would explain his support for Mr. Akin.
We tried our best to schedule events with the Akin campaign, but our phone calls went unanswered. Finally, we reached an Akin family member who said we could join an energy roundtable Akin was holding in St. Louis, where he would be joined by Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma. My wife and I headed to St. Louis. Understand, this was just a couple of weeks before election day, when candidates normally would be speaking before large rallies and holding gatherings several times a day. We arrived at the event, Akin’s only event of the day. It was in a donut shop in suburban St. Louis. We were early, and enjoyed a fried pastry while we waited for the crowd. Pretty soon, the Senator and the Senator-to-be showed up, along with seven members of the media, all of them women. There were three other members of the roundtable, and two children of the guy who owned the donut shop. There was nobody from the public in attendance. We sat around two formica covered tables, and talked about energy.
Inhofe is a pro, and his performance was impeccable. In no way could he have been accused of mailing it in. Akin went next, and in his mild and vaguely inarticulate manner gave a passable summation of the conservative position on drilling, global warming and the like. The rest of the roundtable chimed in. I did the best I could, but, looking back, I have to admit that there is a reason Mr. Inhofe is a Senator and I make my living raising corn. It’s hard to bring enthusiasm to a death march.
Then, we opened it up to questions. Nobody asked any questions about opening up wilderness areas to drilling or whether we should build pipelines. Nope, all the journalists wanted to talk about was women’s issues. After a while, Inhofe shut down the questions and summed up the Republican position on energy.
My wife and I had a nice visit with Mrs. Akin, a beautiful and distinguished woman, who shared her faith with us. We smiled and listened. She is famous in Missouri political circles for her theories about family life. Journalists missed a real opportunity by not scheduling interviews with her. We said goodbye to Mr. Akin, and started our seven-hour drive home.
Todd Akin is a good person. His faith is real and palpable. Having said all that, he had no business being in politics, and in no way should he have been a major party candidate for Senator. When we made our endorsement, and in the days following, our members responded to that genuineness and faith with sympathy and understanding. heir reaction would be admirable in personal relations and should be encouraged in business, but it has no place in politics. Our opponents are all about winning, and the 2012 election for Senate in Missouri can truly be said to have changed history.
Conservative Missourians responded to Akin as a person, but they also were sending a message to the coastal elites. I guess we showed them, didn’t we. We won’t be swayed by a biased media, and we’ll stick with our guy no matter what the cost. That’s satisfying, in a way, to act out your anger with an “establishment” that has served you so poorly. But it is a lousy political strategy.
Donald Trump and Todd Akin have almost nothing in common. Trump is loud where Akin is quiet, Trump is rich where Akin is of modest means, Trump makes no pretense that faith is important in his life. They both, however, at least for a while, have served and are serving as a repository for the frustrations of a large number of voters. They give disaffected voters a chance to stick it to the man, to rebel against the establishment, to cast a vote against Harvard and the Bushes and the Clintons.
I get it, but if conservatives keep acting like winning doesn’t matter, then we’ll never win.
Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/AP Photo