MT. VERNON, Mo.—“I can understand ‘legitimate’ [rape]” says Dee Eukel. “I understand it, because I was a victim. And our local prosecutor told me: We best accept a plea bargain because we can’t get a prosecution on rape.”
It’s Monday evening at the rec center in this small town, halfway between Joplin and Springfield on I-44. Drive up that highway, which connects the southwest counties to St. Louis, and you see the smallish towns and largish chapels where Republican margins are built. The McCain-Palin ticket won Mt. Vernon’s county by 37 points. When the Republicans held their U.S. Senate primary, Todd Akin won this county by 8 points. Akin’s political base is the conservative suburbs of St. Louis, but 30 percent of the state’s GOP vote comes from this region, and it’s behind him now. “We’re going to over-perform here in order to win,” says Akin strategist Rick Tyler.
Dee Eukel’s husband, a rabbi, manages the Leaders Leading Locally Institute, a conservative group that brings activists together to talk politics and charity. That is why we’re in this recreation center, talking about a U.S. Senate race.
If Akin can beat Sen. Claire McCaskill, if the polls that have him down by only 1 point are accurate, it will be because he does well in places like this—well with voters like Eukel. She’s 69, and her assault happened more than a decade ago. She remembers her attacker’s threat, word for word: “I can kill you anytime I want.” Her voice still cracks with resentment of how the state put him in jail for only seven years. This is why she defends Todd Akin, why she’s even posted her story on Facebook.
“When a prosecutor tells a woman he can’t get a conviction, why is that?” asks Eukel. “It’s because of illegitimate accusations. You look at it from a little bit different point of view when you’ve been in a situation. I understood. If the prosecutor can’t get a conviction, it’s because the system has been abused. There’s no excuse for a rape of any kind, but there are too many who’ll say, well, she asked for it.” All Akin did was misspeak. “What he said may have been bad, but look at some of the things our vice president has said—that would be unacceptable to anyone!”
Southwest Missouri made the Todd Akin candidacy, and southwest Missouri could save it. During the primary, McCaskill threw money into chaos-making “anti-Akin” ads that reminded voters here just how frightfully conservative the guy was. After Akin made his “legitimate rape” comment, and national Republicans demanded that he quit to make room for a candidate who didn’t talk like that on live TV, Republican organizations here stuck by him. Walk into the Jasper County Republican office, just east of Joplin, and you see a sign declaring proudly that it receives NO Republican National Committee or Missouri Republican Party Funding. Its two ranch-style offices and bushels of Akin signs and literature are funded by the faithful, not the fretful.
John Putnam, 65, is chairman of this local party. When I stop by, he’s helping deliver some chairs to an Americans for Prosperity rally—not affiliated with any party—that’s happening across the street. Putnam’s family arrived in America in the 1640s, and he wears a baseball cap decorated with one of George Washington’s flags, pausing occasionally to check an iPhone protected by a stars-and-stripes case.
“If you take the national or state money you have to do what the party tells you,” says Putnam. “People don’t think [Akin]should’ve been hung out to dry.” They’re offended, actually, that the media so mangled what Akin was saying. “A lot of women today still tell me that Akin said women can’t get pregnant from rape. You just had to look at the tape to see what he was trying to say, but said poorly: Stress reduces the likelihood of somebody getting pregnant.”