Did Claire McCaskill illegally coordinate with Todd Akin’s campaign so she could beat him?

Claire McCaskill published a fascinating story in POLITICO Magazine about how she tinkered with the 2012 Republican primary for her Senate race in Todd Akin’s favor. Akin had already said things that her campaign felt would disqualify him in a general election, and certainly seemed like the kind of guy who believed that “legitimate” rape doesn’t cause pregnancy. So by ensuring that Akin was the eventual nominee, McCaskill would be putting herself in the best position to win the general election, which she eventually did.

It started with McCaskill polling the Republican field and finding that there was an opening for Akin:

Claire McCaskill, via Wikimedia Commons

Claire McCaskill, via Wikimedia Commons

Tom Kiley, my pollster, turned up some findings that seemed crazy to me. For example, less than one quarter of the likely Republican primary voters believed that Barack Obama had been born in the United States. These were the voters who could help tip a Republican primary to an archconservative, but that conservative would have a hard time winning the state. Yes, it was a three-way primary of equally viable candidates, but a subset of energized people with strong religious convictions and serious aversion to gay people, public schools, immigrants and reproductive choice could help elect someone like Akin.

So McCaskill began running attack ads in the state against Akin, who was at the time in third place in the primary campaign. The ads framed him as being “too conservative” for Missouri; while this was true, McCaskill knew full well that Republicans would score that as a positive for him. Her campaign’s polling, along with anecdotal evidence such as letters to the editor and phone calls to her office, showed that the ads were working, improving Akin’s standing in the race. This prompted the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to jump in with attacks on Akin of their own toward the end of the race.

But that by itself isn’t what put Akin over the top. As McCaskill outlines, it was one of Akin’s own ads that put him over the edge…with her help:

Then, unexpectedly, the Akin camp took down one of his own ads that had been so effective. In it Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a leading voice in the conservative movement, endorsed Akin and explained his reasoning looking straight into the camera. It was powerful, but Akin’s camp replaced it with Akin talking about “flames of freedom.” What were they thinking? Akin didn’t have money for polling, but we had been tracking the numbers carefully and concluded that he’d be in trouble if he didn’t get the Huckabee ad back up.

On the Thursday before the election, I called Ron Gladney, the husband of Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican from Missouri. I asked him if he could get a message to the Akin camp to put the Huckabee ad back up. Of course Gladney started laughing and asked, “Are you kidding?” “No,” I replied. “If he gets the Huckabee ad back up by Friday, he’s going to win.” I also placed a call to Michael Kelley, a Democratic Party and labor operative who was friends with a former Akin staffer, and asked him to convey the same message to the Akin camp. A short time later my campaign manager, Adrianne Marsh, got a call from the Akin campaign. The person on the line wanted to talk to our pollster. Adrianne called me, and I gave clearance, allowing Kiley to speak in broad generalities. Three hours later the Huckabee ad was back up.

As election lawyer and election law blogger Rick Hasen noted, these two paragraphs raise some serious questions as to whether McCaskill illegally coordinated with the Akin campaign, as, in the simplest terms, “The Senator’s campaign was sending a message to the Akin campaign about what strategy to follow.” There may have been a few intermediaries at first, but at the end of they day the process resulted in Akin’s campaign manager on the phone with McCaskill’s pollster discussing strategy. At any rate, at least one member of Congress is sure her actions were illegal:

McCaskill certainly wouldn’t have published this story had she felt that it would in any way damage her, politically or legally. But of course, that doesn’t mean that what she did wasn’t both politically masterful and legally suspect. Just because the FEC is in no position to enforce coordination rules doesn’t mean those rules don’t exist. I’d be very interested to at least hear them weigh in.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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3 Responses to “Did Claire McCaskill illegally coordinate with Todd Akin’s campaign so she could beat him?”

  1. BeccaM says:

    If Jeb “Don’t Say My Name!” Bush can spend months pretending he’s not running for President, and even walk back multiple public declarations, and not be held the least bit accountable, this ‘coordinating’ charge has about as much chance of flying as does a guy in a Rocky the Flying Squirrel outfit.

    Promoting up an opposition candidate because he or she is easier to beat than other potential candidates is just a political strategy. Just look at how many on both sides of the D and R divide want certain extreme candidates in the opposite party to be nominated due to a perception they’re too far out there for the voters to support.

  2. Indigo says:

    Sounds like everyday US politics to me. Okay, let me rephrase that. Sounds like a plot line for ‘Madame Secretary.’

  3. 2karmanot says:

    Doesn’t surprise me a bit. She’s sketchy like DiFi and when she came out on the side of the prosecutor in the Mike Brown case it was obvious.

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