TAMPA — Missouri GOP delegates are rejecting the heavy-handed push by Mitt Romney and national Republicans to boot Todd Akin from their state's Senate race, revealing a split that could imperil the party's effort to take back the chamber in the fall campaign.
In interviews with POLITICO, delegates argued that Akin could still win the race in the conservative state, pushing back against the notion that his remarks on rape were a death blow to his Senate candidacy. Several delegates here in Tampa seemed angry at the national party, saying the decision to withhold millions of dollars in campaign funding is the real impediment in their effort to oust Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in November.
"Absolutely," John Putnam of Carthage, Mo., said when asked if he was disappointed at Romney for demanding that Akin exit the race. "I think he needs to rescind that, retract that. I think (Republican National Committee chairman) Reince Priebus and (Sen.) Roy Blunt and all the people need to support the candidate that the folks from Missouri nominated and picked in the primary."
"I think the GOP party bosses that are trying to drum him out are creating a bigger split in the party than Todd Akin is," said Putnam, head of the Jasper County Republican Central Committee.
Putnam wasn't alone. At a breakfast meeting of Missouri delegates here in Tampa, a number were sporting "Akin for Senate" stickers and stood strongly behind the six-term congressman's decision to stay in the race. The support of the state-level Missouri Republicans for Akin undermines the unified front that the rest of the Republican Party — from Romney down to conservative pundits — has tried to show in urging Akin to quit.
"I think, honestly, that's shameful. The party should not throw him under the bus simply because he made a misstatement," said Mitch Hubbard of Fulton, Mo.
Still, while Republican delegates expressed optimism that Akin could withstand the party pressure and ultimately win, a Mason-Dixon poll in the wake of the controversy showed the Republican trailing McCaskill by nine points and his image taking a beating in the eyes of Missouri voters. Republican leaders — backed by conservative personalities like Mark Levin and Ann Coulter — believe that Akin's candidacy will cost the GOP a seat and a chance at a Republican majority in the Senate.
"Unfortunately, with him on the ticket, not only is the Senate race lost, but I think the state ticket is in danger," former Missouri GOP Sen. Kit Bond told POLITICO, warning that President Barack Obama could even win a state previously believed to be out of his reach. "I'm hearing that Todd is going to be featured in the Democratic convention. That's a reason nationally to vote Democratic."
Bond said Akin has not taken his phone calls, noting that his voice mail is full. Akin has apologized several times after his comments that "legitimate rape" rarely leads to pregnancies because the female body can "shut" it down — comments he made in a local TV interview when discussing why he opposes abortion in the case of rape.
He has until Sept. 25 to obtain a court order to get out of the race and allow the state party to pick a replacement. But Akin insists he's staying in the race.
Still, Blunt was skeptical Monday.
"I'm not sure he's going to stay in; there's still time to think about this," Blunt told POLITICO. "We think the national issues are what matters here and that Todd needs to evaluate the impact he's having on the discussion of the issues facing the country today."
Asked if the seat were out of the GOP's reach if Akin remains a candidate, Blunt demurred.
"Ask me in October if he's still there," he said.