TAMPA — It’s an understatement to say Republicans are worried about losing the Senate race in Missouri. Amid the Todd Akin controversy, they’re terrified by the prospect of losing a state they previously thought they could win — and thus falling a single seat short of winning control of the Senate.
Now, many of them view Mike Huckabee as the key player in the Akin situation. The former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate has supported Akin all along and has prominently refused to join in the Republican chorus — which includes virtually every office holder, former office holder, political operatives and big-name radio hosts — calling for Akin to get out of the race. If Huckabee told Akin it’s time to leave, many Republicans believe, then Akin would go.
Huckabee says he has no such powers. Contrary to popular assumption, the two men aren’t really talking, Huckabee says. The last conversation they had was last Tuesday, on Huckabee’s radio show, and the only other time they’ve talked during the controversy was also on radio. “I’ve had two conversations with him, both of which were on the air,” Huckabee says. The two men haven’t had a private conversation about the issue.
But what about his influence? “Everybody thinks I’m like the Phantom of the Opera here,” Huckabee says, holding out his hands as if to play the organ. “No, I just don’t like to see guys who are on my side of things get the daylights whacked out of them by other people who are on my side.”
Republicans of all varieties, from strategists to top officials, have called Huckabee to try to change his mind on Akin. So far, it hasn’t worked. It’s gotten to the point where Republicans are treating Huckabee with kid gloves almost as much as Akin. For example, when Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Huckabee recently, he took care not to push. “To his credit, he did not call and have a conversation with me saying, you’ve got to get Todd Akin out,” says Huckabee. “We had a very honest conversation between two people who like each other…and I don’t have a problem with the Senatorial Committee deciding the race is not one they want to invest in.”
Other Republicans have called Huckabee to cite polls showing Akin has sunk like a stone among Missouri voters. “That’s fine, I understand,” Huckabee says. “And the polls right now are not good. But let’s give them a week or two. Let’s see what happens and whether the voters come back.” Huckabee remains perhaps the last, or one of the last, Republicans in America who believes Akin can still win. “Sure,” Huckabee says. “Anybody can win an election that is going to be about more than one statement he made. This is going to be about a long-term record of 12 years in the Congress and contrasting that with Claire McCaskill.”
Talk to Huckabee very long about Akin, and it becomes clear that Huckabee’s deepest motivation is the life issue. Huckabee in no way defends what Akin said about “legitimate rape.” But to him, the Akin episode has raised the issue of life to a new prominence in the campaign. “This is a great opportunity to show there is a tremendous contrast between what Republicans have said, sometimes awkwardly, and what Democrats have done as it relates to the issue of the sanctity of life,” Huckabee says. “If you look at the very radical agenda of Barack Obama, and it is radical, it’s way out there beyond Barney Frank and most Democrats in the House or Senate, I think it’s a story Americans need to hear. Eighty percent of Americans are against gender selection abortion. He’s not. He voted for partial birth abortion. As an Illinois senator three times — not once, but three times — he voted against a bill that would require medical treatment for a child born alive as the result of a botched abortion.”
“That’s not something he said and apologized for,” Huckabee adds. “That’s something he did and has never apologized for.”
In some forums Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, has made the case in frankly religious terms. In a conference call with Southern Baptists on Friday, he described the Akin controversy as an Old Testament battle. “This could be a Mount Carmel moment,” Huckabee said, according to a report in Politico. “You know, you bring your gods. We’ll bring ours. We’ll see whose god answers the prayers and brings fire from heaven. That’s kind of where I’m praying: that there will be fire from heaven, and we’ll see it clearly, and everyone else will, too.”
Some have interpreted Huckabee’s remarks as inappropriately injecting religious passions into a campaign controversy. Huckabee downplays his words on the call. “People may try to read into that way more than was there,” Huckabee says. “It’s a great metaphor for the fact that sometimes people talk about the impossible, the things that can’t be done.”
“Sometimes when you use the language of Zion in a setting that was not intended for secular audiences, secular audiences don’t understand it,” Huckabee continues. “I would just say somebody shouldn’t have listened in on a phone call that was not intended for them. Anyone who is a churchgoing type person understood the message was not some subliminal, secret code. It was simply saying the contrast is stark. Claire McCaskill, Todd Akin — look at the differences between these two.”
Huckabee, who hosts a popular program on Fox News, also has a new radio show. And some Republicans baffled by his position on Akin have speculated that, with top hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity clearly wanting Akin to get out, Huckabee might be engaged in a little counter-programming, an effort to distinguish himself from his bigger competition. “Oh, no, no, no,” he says. “I’ve done something they’ve never done. “I’ve run for office. I’ve been on the ballot. I’ve been on the ballot as an underdog, I’ve been on the ballot when I wasn’t the favorite of people in the party, and I know how that feels.” A candidate who has worked hard to win a nomination, Huckabee says, should be able to count on loyalty from his own side.
On the other hand, Huckabee does suggest he likes being apart from the crowd. “I can tell you this: I’ve always liked shorter lines,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s at the bank or the drive-through at McDonalds, I’m always looking for the shortest line possible. And there was quite a long line of people who were going out with the brass knuckles and working Akin over. It was a very, very short line of people who would even give the guy the benefit of the doubt.”
But what about another Republican candidate? There are good ones out there. And if Akin leaves the race, it’s not as if an Obama-style pro-choicer would become the GOP standard-bearer in Missouri. Why not support, say Ann Wagner, the House candidate who is now being discussed as a replacement for Akin in the Senate race? “I love Ann,” Huckabee says. “I have campaigned for her, went to St. Louis and did an event for her. Love her. But she didn’t run for the Senate. She ran for the House and won, and she’ll be a fantastic congresswoman. And someday, she may run for the Senate. But she didn’t do that. Todd Akin did, and he won that election.”
The bottom line is that Huckabee is sticking with Akin, at least for now. Republicans can call him all they want and cite poll numbers to him all they want, and he won’t change his mind — even if his party believes his positions will lead GOP Senate efforts to disaster.