MT. VERNON, Mo.—“I can understand ‘legitimate’ [rape]” says Dee Eukel. “I understand it, because I was a victim. And our local prosecutor told me: We best accept a plea bargain because we can’t get a prosecution on rape.”
It’s Monday evening at the rec center in this small town, halfway between Joplin and Springfield on I-44. Drive up that highway, which connects the southwest counties to St. Louis, and you see the smallish towns and largish chapels where Republican margins are built. The McCain-Palin ticket won Mt. Vernon’s county by 37 points. When the Republicans held their U.S. Senate primary, Todd Akin won this county by 8 points. Akin’s political base is the conservative suburbs of St. Louis, but 30 percent of the state’s GOP vote comes from this region, and it’s behind him now. “We’re going to over-perform here in order to win,” says Akin strategist Rick Tyler.
Dee Eukel’s husband, a rabbi, manages the Leaders Leading Locally Institute, a conservative group that brings activists together to talk politics and charity. That is why we’re in this recreation center, talking about a U.S. Senate race.
If Akin can beat Sen. Claire McCaskill, if the polls that have him down by only 1 point are accurate, it will be because he does well in places like this—well with voters like Eukel. She’s 69, and her assault happened more than a decade ago. She remembers her attacker’s threat, word for word: “I can kill you anytime I want.” Her voice still cracks with resentment of how the state put him in jail for only seven years. This is why she defends Todd Akin, why she’s even posted her story on Facebook.
“When a prosecutor tells a woman he can’t get a conviction, why is that?” asks Eukel. “It’s because of illegitimate accusations. You look at it from a little bit different point of view when you’ve been in a situation. I understood. If the prosecutor can’t get a conviction, it’s because the system has been abused. There’s no excuse for a rape of any kind, but there are too many who’ll say, well, she asked for it.” All Akin did was misspeak. “What he said may have been bad, but look at some of the things our vice president has said—that would be unacceptable to anyone!”
Southwest Missouri made the Todd Akin candidacy, and southwest Missouri could save it. During the primary, McCaskill threw money into chaos-making “anti-Akin” ads that reminded voters here just how frightfully conservative the guy was. After Akin made his “legitimate rape” comment, and national Republicans demanded that he quit to make room for a candidate who didn’t talk like that on live TV, Republican organizations here stuck by him. Walk into the Jasper County Republican office, just east of Joplin, and you see a sign declaring proudly that it receives NO Republican National Committee or Missouri Republican Party Funding. Its two ranch-style offices and bushels of Akin signs and literature are funded by the faithful, not the fretful.
John Putnam, 65, is chairman of this local party. When I stop by, he’s helping deliver some chairs to an Americans for Prosperity rally—not affiliated with any party—that’s happening across the street. Putnam’s family arrived in America in the 1640s, and he wears a baseball cap decorated with one of George Washington’s flags, pausing occasionally to check an iPhone protected by a stars-and-stripes case.
“If you take the national or state money you have to do what the party tells you,” says Putnam. “People don’t think [Akin]should’ve been hung out to dry.” They’re offended, actually, that the media so mangled what Akin was saying. “A lot of women today still tell me that Akin said women can’t get pregnant from rape. You just had to look at the tape to see what he was trying to say, but said poorly: Stress reduces the likelihood of somebody getting pregnant.”
Over two long travel days, and a few hundred miles of road, I fail to find any Republican voters who substantively disagreed with Akin. The big media rap on Akin this week is that he found McCaskill more “ladylike” in her 2006 race. Akin’s team sees a clear separation between the national media’s focus and the worries of Missouri. “It’s like night and day,” says Tyler. “I’m sure the Washington and New York media can find ways to be offended. But it’s pathetic, it’s stupid, it’s sophomoric, it’s ridiculous.”
Outside Akinworld (the campaign) and Akinland (hardcore conservative Missouri), you can find plenty of panicky Republicans. Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who ran the GOP’s congressional campaign in 2000, remembers how Akin eked out a win in a five-way primary, seemingly putting a swing seat at risk. Akin predicted that “my base will come out in earthquakes.” It did, and he won by 14 points. You beat the “smart kids” enough times and you start to think you can’t lose. That’s what made Akin intractable when Republicans were on bended knee asking him to quit. But he wasn’t the only Republican who believed it.
Shortly before I leave Joplin’s AFP rally I talk to Jane Obert, the city of Neosho’s finance director. Off duty for the day, she’s wearing the red-and-blue colors of the Southwest Missouri Conservative Network, another one of the umbrella groups down here that’s weathered the decline of the Tea Party.
“What he actually said, that riled people up, was not said eloquently for a politician,” says Obert. “But it was actually true. Any time women are in a highly stressful situation, they’re not likely to get pregnant.” She points me to the Department of Health and Human Services website, which says this much in a HealthTip. “It’s a clear choice.
Do you stand for life, or do you stand for murdering unborn babies for any time and any reason. Claire McCaskill wants to make it legal to suck an unborn baby’s brains out. How barbaric is that?”
At the Leaders Leading Locally event, this is taken for granted. The evening begins when Rabbi Eukel warns about the “false barriers” set up by politicos and the media. Among them: “That the secular and the sacred are not together. That legislation and God’s love don’t mix.” We pray, we recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and then we listen to Ed Martin, the Republican candidate for attorney general. He has the build and voice of the old professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, and travels to some campaign events in a rehabbed ambulance to remind voters of the faults of Obamacare. He rat-a-tats through a list of ways that the Democratic incumbent, Chris Koster, has become “Obama’s lawyer”—signs with this message are available at the door. “If Obama wins I’ll probably sue him every day,” says Martin. “If Romney wins, I’ll sue him every other day.”
It’s one of those town halls where open-ended questions lead to all-encompassing answers. A voter asks Martin what he’ll do to defend small businesses. The candidate answers, then gets into a monologue about Akin—how his fatal TV clip was engineered by a “bottom-feeding leftist,” and why conservatives should get his back.
“One of the terrible things about the Todd situation, about how it all happened, was the lack of charity that people had towards him,” says Martin. “He said something that was really not well said, yeah. And he apologized. And he should have. But in that period of time, there were a lot of people from far-off lands that were just pounding away on a man and who he was. I thought he made a mistake that might be fatal. It might still be, in terms of his political career. But he’s a man.”
Watch: Political Kombat, the 2012 campaign told through video game fights.