Why the Rape Question Haunts Republicans

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 1 2012 2:36 PM

Why the “Rape Thing” Haunts Republicans

Because sometimes they aren’t as hypocritical as voters.

Mitt Romney, left, and Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, right, greet supporters at a campaign event.
Mitt Romney and Senate candidate Richard Mourdock greet supporters at an August campaign event in Evansville, Ind.

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Shortly after 5, on Wednesday, I was wrapping up a conversation about “rape gaffes” with Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser. She has had a lot of conversations like this, especially about the U.S. Senate race in Indiana. An internal poll for Rep. Joe Donnelly now showed him up by 9 points over Republican state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. A previous poll had showed Donnelly up by 7 points. Mourdock’s own polling suggests, at the very best, a tie. All because Mourdock had said “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen,” and had chosen a televised debate as the place to say that.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“Anytime somebody mentions rape,” said Dannenfelser, “the other side thinks it’s over for that candidate. But voters are smarter than campaigns think they are. Women are smarter than they’re cracked up to be. Mourdock did a good job explaining what he believes.”

I hung up and greeted my inbox. The first story: “Republican Congressional Candidate Opines on ‘The Rape Thing.’ ” John Koster, who’s running for the new 1st district in Seattle’s suburbs, had wondered whether “putting more violence onto a woman's body and taking the life of an innocent child that's the consequence of this crime” was really the way to deal with the aforementioned Thing. Among his endorsers was, of course, the SBA List. And the only reason that either issue had come up so awkwardly, in either race, was that Missouri Rep. Todd Akin had mused about legitimate and nonlegitimate rape, two-and-a-half months ago.

This question is going to haunt Republicans if, next week, they blow a few elections that they should have won. Why, why, why do their candidates keep musing about abortion in cases of rape? Akin they could explain away as an anomaly, a cow-licked holy roller who’d gotten arrested at abortion clinic protests and spoken out for the poor, benighted militia men. But Richard Mourdock? The soft-spoken state treasurer of Indiana? He’d never been arrested in front of any clinics.

I understand the confusion. Back in February, I spent most of a day with Mourdock as he tried to get noticed at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Most of the time, he was humble and intelligently ignored the bait easy or gaffe-ready questions. At one point, though, he described the new success he was having in politics, and got a little teary-eyed. “I do have an ability to stand in front of a room of people, and talk, and watch those faces as people change their minds,” he said. “It’s something I never thought I’d do. At age 60, I find out, I’m pretty good at this. I can change minds.”

That was Mourdock’s bad bet. The same miscalculation made by Akin and Koster, even though the content of each quote is apples/oranges different. (No one but Akin suggested that holy hormones could prevent a rapist’s semen from implanting in an egg.) As my colleague Will Saletan has reported, at least 12 Republican candidates for Senate this year hold the same “life is a gift” position against the rape exception. But Mourdock chose to defend a moral stance because he thought he could convince people. It wasn’t just his stance. Logically, it was theirs.

And this is what drives Republicans mad about the race. Mourdock’s opponent, Donnelly, refers to himself as “pro-life.” At the pivotal debate, he gave a clipped, quick answer to the abortion question that made less sense than Mourdock’s. “I believe in pro-life,” he said, which sounded weird on its own. “I believe that life begins at conception. The only exceptions I believe in are for rape, and incest, and the life of the mother. In regards to contraception, I believe women have the right to quality health care.”

He believed that life starts at conception, but he was willing to let doctors and women end it in certain circumstances. Republicans can’t believe he’s getting away with this. “Donnelly claims he's pro-life but he's gone lockstep with Democrats,” said Greg Fettig of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, which helped to unite Tea Party groups behind Mourdock and ultimately win the primary. The SBA List’s ad in Indiana hits Donnelly for his vote on the Affordable Care Act.

And that vote is probably worth explaining. Like Rep. Bart Stupak, Donnelly initially refused to support the health care bill for fear that it would fund abortions. Stupak and Donnelly switched their votes when the president promised a mostly toothless executive order that reaffirmed the no-money-for-abortion language. Most of the Stupak caucus lost their elections in November. Donnelly survived, then co-sponsored the Republicans’ “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which (in initial drafts) changed a legal reference from “rape” to “forcible rape.”

So it should be Donnelly, not Mourdock, who’s squirming to explain his abortion stance. For a while he was, giving mushy answers about his stance on the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Then Mourdock effectively bailed him out, and Donnelly has benefited from third-party attacks on his opponent. They work because voters are also skittish about the question of when life begins. Just this week, a national YouGov poll asked Americans when abortion should be legal. A full 67 percent favored some restrictions or total restrictions. A full 74 percent wanted to keep it legal in cases of rape or incest.

Republicans are better off when then this distinction never gets explored. Akin’s supporters are convinced: The initial backlash to their candidate, the establishment’s attempt to remove him in favor of one of a half-dozen Republican stars, made the damage worse. Akin’s had to cobble together support from social conservatives, and to an extent, it’s worked. Mike Huckabee and the Family Research Council are in Missouri for Akin right now. Akin’s adviser Rick Tyler can count off the spending that’s collating for the final stretch—a $387,000 coordinated buy with the state party, $800,000 from the Now or Never super PAC spending $800,000, a $550,000 ad from the Faith Family Freedom Fund, and $900,000 of Akin’s own funds.

But Republicans don’t normally need to spend that much to “fix” an abortion question. The issue works for them when it’s sublimated and obscure. Mourdock and the other victims of Akinmania aren’t particularly bad candidates. They’ve just failed to be as hypocritical as their voters.

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