Candidate gaffes could cost GOP Senate control — again


Republican candidates' controversial statements could cost their party Senate control, much as they did in 2010.

Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's (R) recent remark on rape and abortion is just the latest misstep for him. While it's still unclear how much the comment will hurt his campaign, earlier gaffes accounted for the reason he was struggling in the first place.

ADVERTISEMENT
Mourdock joins Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who torpedoed his campaign with comments that "legitimate rape" rarely leads to pregnancy, as the two candidates most likely to cost the GOP control in a closely divided Senate because of controversial statements.

Democrats are comparing the two to 2010 GOP Senate nominees Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, whose campaigns cost their party a chance at Senate control — and some Republicans agree.

"Never underestimate the GOP's ability to step in it at the most inopportune time. This is what happened in 2010, too," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell told The Hill, referring to the missteps of Mourdock and Akin. "This has the potential to cost the party control of the Senate."

Mourdock's and Akin's comments were different in kind; the former restated, albeit clumsily, widely accepted Christian doctrine on the sanctity of life, whereas the latter ventured into the realm of unsubstantiated pseudo-science. But both gave Democrats an opening to pounce.

A number of Republican strategists privately concurred that Akin's and Mourdock's comments badly damaged the party’s chances at winning two seats in Republican states they were counting on to reach the majority. Republicans need to net four seats to take control of the upper chamber if President Obama wins reelection, and three if Mitt Romney wins, since the vice president casts the tie-breaking vote for control.

Democrats are defending many more tough seats this election, and the GOP expected to win Senate control earlier this year, but its chances have since dimmed considerably.

Mourdock said during a Tuesday night debate that pregnancy caused by rape is something "God intended to happen," a comment that set off a national media firestorm and led some Republicans to publicly distance themselves from his sentiment.

"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God," Mourdock said at the debate, after saying he believes in abortion only when the mother's life is in danger. "And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

He has since clarified that he meant that "God creates life.

"Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick," he said.

Most national Republicans are standing by him, and believe the controversy will die down between now and Election Day, less than two weeks away, because the state is heavily Republican and his opponent, Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), also opposes abortion rights.

But the reason Mourdock was in a tough race in the first place was because of earlier gaffes that allowed Democrats to paint the Tea Party favorite as a hyper-partisan extremist.

He'd already said that "bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view," pondered aloud whether Social Security and Medicare were constitutional, said that for him the "highlight of politics" was being able to "inflict my opinion on someone else" and described a lawsuit he pushed against the auto bailout as his "Rosa Parks moment."

Democrats have used those remarks against him in attack ads. Even before Mourdock’s most recent misstep, he and Donnelly were tied in the polls, with many Republicans and independents who’d voted for Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and against Mourdock in the GOP primary undecided or backing Donnelly.

Akin's gaffe did even more damage to the party's hopes of retaking the Senate.

After he said that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy, Republican leaders, including the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, publicly pressured him to drop out of the race. When he refused, the NRSC and American Crossroads, the deep-pocketed Republican super-PAC, pledged not to spend on the race.

But Akin wasn’t done. More recently, he said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was "not ladylike" in her debate against him, and compared her to a dog.

"If you lose both of those seats, that hurts us. With Mourdock it's a late gaffe that's likely to continue [doing damage] through Election Day, and with Akin that cost him enormous support within the party," said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. "If we come up one seat short, a lot of people are going to blame them."

Other Republicans have hurt their Senate campaigns with gaffes this cycle, though none were as impactful as those two. Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) got in trouble during the primary for an ad against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) that many deemed racist, and further hurt his chances in the uphill battle when he questioned whether President Obama is an American citizen during a meeting with a local Tea Party group.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) has also been hurt by comments he made to a Tea Party group — Democrats are running ads featuring his statement that he’d “do away with” Medicaid and Medicare. Thompson’s statement continued on to explain changes to the programs, not complete elimination of them.

"Just like in 2010, the Tea Party has hijacked the Republican Party and nominated far-right candidates who are out of the mainstream and turning off independent voters. These voters understand that there’s a clear contrast between the Tea Party agenda and the type of common-sense solutions Democrats are advocating for," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Shripal Shah said in regard to the campaigns.

Democrats have made missteps as well. Arizona Senate nominee Richard Carmona (D) recently jokingly told a male debate moderator that he was "prettier" than CNN correspondent Candy Crowley, playing into GOP attacks that he doesn’t work well with women.

Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren hurt herself last summer when, under fire for claiming she was part Native American, she recounted a family story that her grandfather "had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do," drawing further attention to an unwanted story. Republicans argue that Rep. Shelley Berkley's (D-Nev.) conflicting statements on what she’d asked the House Ethics Committee hurt her campaign, though the ongoing Ethics investigation is what hurt her more.

"In states like Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Nevada, there's no question that Democrats nominated extremely liberal and/or ethically challenged candidates, which have offered Republicans better opportunities that we might not have otherwise had," NRSC communications director Brian Walsh told The Hill.

But it's clear the GOP has had bigger problems with candidates blundering rhetorically. If they fall short of Senate control, as they did in 2010, it may be due to something their candidates said.