WASHINGTON — Most Missouri Republicans thought Todd Akin didn’t have a chance.
The year was 2000, and Akin was one of five Republican candidates jockeying for the party’s nomination in the second congressional district in Missouri, a safely Republican seat.
But Akin did win — by a mere 56 votes, with the help of his devoted, socially conservative following, and due in large part to low voter turnout on the day of the election, and because there was no runoff election.
This year, state Republicans were comparably stunned when Akin emerged victorious from a three-way Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. That history repeated itself was an indication of Republican primaries favoring the more extreme candidates, some within the party said — and Republicans around the country are studying Missouri closely as a case study in what not to do.
“As they say in politics, the middle of the road is where dashed lines and dead skunks are,” said Franc Flotron, who lost to Akin in the 2000 Congressional primary race and now works as a lobbyist.
And in the 2012 election, it mattered: Akin was facing a moderate and competitive general-election opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill. The incumbent ultimately trounced Akin on Election Day, and now, Republicans in Missouri are wondering what they might learn from this traumatic election year, if anything, and how they might bounce back.
Even prior to an outcome in the Senate race, there was some talk — perhaps wishful — among Republicans who did not support Akin that the state’s primary system should be reformed to include a run-off or a second-choice option. Such mechanisms might have prevented Akin from triumphing in the three-way competition with John Brunner, a businessman, and Sarah Steelman, a former state treasurer.
But one high-ranking state Republican said such a change would not be on the state’s upcoming legislative agenda.
“I don’t think the Akin race is going to have an effect on where the state has been going the past 10 years,” the Republican said. “I don’t think Missourians have changed.”
“I don’t know that Todd Akin in one election cycle will change the direction of the Missouri Republican Party.”
The race has brought into prominent focus for Missouri Republicans what some people within the party see as a shortcoming in recruitment efforts, which has also played out among statewide office holders: The majority of Missouri’s top offices, including the governorship, are currently held by Democrats.
The state GOP will likely have to grapple with its identity in much the same way national Republicans have said they intend to — and will face in particular the question of whether to elevate social or fiscal issues in the next election.
“There’s always been a rift between social and fiscal conservatives, and this has really laid that bare,” said one Missouri Republican operative. “Hopefully that heals.”