Political Nose Holding

Politicians must master a litany of skills to succeed in Washington. They become masters of debate and oratory. They tackle parliamentary procedure. They learn how to craft deals with their political opponents.

And sometimes, they become adept at holding their noses.

Political nose holding is in style these days in Washington. Especially for some Republicans amid the campaign Missouri Senate GOP nominee Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO). Akin faced a firestorm of criticism over the past six weeks after his comment to a St. Louis TV station about “legitimate rape.” Akin decided to stay in the race even though prominent Republicans implored the Congressman to withdraw.

A mid-August statement by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) epitomized the GOP’s conundrum. If Senate Republicans have their way this fall, McConnell becomes Majority Leader. And if control of the Senate comes down to just one seat, there’s concern among Republicans that Akin’s remark could cost the GOP an opportunity to claim the Senate majority.

“I believe he should take time with his family to consider whether this statement will prevent him from effectively representing our party in this critical election,” said McConnell. “What he said is just flat wrong in addition to being wildly offensive to any victim of sexual abuse.”

A spokesman for McConnell says the Kentucky lawmaker has nothing to add on the issue now.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the national organization devoted to electing Senate GOPers. In August, Cornyn’s remarks were even more pointed than McConnell’s.

“Congressman Akin should carefully consider what is best for him, his family, the Republican party and the values he cares about,” said Cornyn at the time.

Then Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) teamed with former Sens. John Danforth (R-MO), Kit Bond (R-MO), John Ashcroft (R-MO) and Jim Talent (R-MO) to beseech Akin to step aside for the good of the party.

“The issues at stake are too big and this election is simply too important,” Blunt and the former Missouri senators wrote.

But the deadline for Akin to strip his name from the ballot passed this week. Republicans realized they were stuck with Todd Akin as their nominee. And that’s why some revisited their nose-holding prowess.

“I’ll be working for the Republican ticket in Missouri and that includes Todd Akin,” said Blunt. “Congressman Akin and I don’t agree on everything. But he and I agree the Senate majority must change.”

Blunt faces a classic Catch 22. But he’s a nimble politician who knows how to simultaneously serve disparate interests. Blunt is mindful that many Missouri conservatives back Akin, firing up some quarters of the electorate. And those same voters will remember when Blunt stands for re-election in 2016. As a loyal Republican, Blunt also has to support the GOP ticket from Mitt Romney on down. Plus, don’t forget that Blunt’s a member of the Senate Republican leadership. He’s Vice Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. So Blunt has to do what he can to help his party capture the Senate. At the same time, Blunt’s savvy enough to know that Akin is toxic to many voters. That means Blunt can’t give Akin a full-throttled endorsement, either. So Blunt’s statement was a vanilla way of saying he’s on board.

But deftly holding his nose.

The NRSC nuanced its position on Akin, too. The NRSC isn’t dumping money into the state to help Akin win. And it made sure that John Cornyn didn’t have to directly backtrack his August plea that Akin take one for the team. So the NRSC’s Executive Director Rob Jesmer took a turn nose-holding instead.

“Todd Akin is a far more preferable candidate than liberal Senator Claire McCaskill,” said Jesmer. “We hope Todd Akin wins in November and we will continue to monitor this race closely in the days ahead.”

But not all Republicans were holding their noses this week. In fact, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and former presidential candidate and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) maintained unobstructed airways when they formally announced their outright backing of Akin.

“We support Todd Akin and hope freedom-loving Americans in Missouri and around the country will join us so we can save our country from fiscal collapse,” they said in a joint statement.

Of course, the appeal for those “around the country” means that Akin is in serious need of campaign cash if he’s to make this race competitive with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). DeMint and Santorum are hoping a lot of checks will pour in from out of state to support the Akin cause.

What’s not said in that statement is that just a few months ago, many Republicans thought it would be a lay-up to pick up the Senate. Democrats faced a staggering series of seats to defend this cycle. Republicans believed they could flip Democratically-controlled seats in Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Montana. Now there’s concern the GOP could fail to win the necessary seats to capture a Senate majority for the second consecutive election.

If that’s true, it’s a double-whammy for Republicans. Romney appears to trail President Obama in swing states and national polls. In fact, some Republican insiders privately suggest the GOP is now re-focusing its energy on Senate contests as Romney stumbles. If that’s the case, the NRSC will bolster its efforts. But there’s been a spate of bad poll numbers for Republican Senate candidates in Ohio and Florida lately. So achieving the majority remains daunting.

Both sides knew it would be a dogfight between former Sen. George Allen (R-VA) and former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) in Virginia. They watched for it to be close in Montana between Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT). They anticipated a nip and tuck contest between Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and GOP nominee Josh Mandel in the Buckeye State. But from the start, everyone thought McCaskill was vulnerable and face a brutal challenge against whomever the Republicans trotted out.

Akin was the candidate McCaskill wanted to run against. She got her wish after he nabbed the nomination. And then Akin committed his gaffe.

Democrats relished this opportunity in Missouri. However, Guy Cecil, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), was cautious.

“I think that (Akin’s political) obituary was written prematurely,” said Cecil at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte. “I think folks who know Missouri understand it’s still going to be a competitive race.”

Democrats have been wise to temper expectations. Of course, it benefits Democrats to have Akin hang around. No firm has conducted reliable polling on this race in weeks. If Akin does eke out a victory, it presents a nightmare scenario for Republicans back in Washington.

Could the GOP truly embrace Akin? Would rank-and-file GOP senators allow him to become a member of the Senate Republican Conference (of which Blunt is the vice chair)? Would they assign Akin to committees? If there’s opposition to this, would Blunt fight to secure solid committee assignments and admission to the Republican Conference on behalf of Akin for the good of Missouri? And what if an Akin victory is the race which propels Republicans to the majority?

Akin has issued blistering attacks on the GOP leaders who have opposed him. If voters tap Akin, he could be an unchained senator who answers to no party structure.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) heads the DSCC. Republicans may have offered Akin tepid endorsements as part of their goal to achieve a Senate majority and unseat McCaskill. But Murray was determined Wednesday to let everyone know that she believes the GOP has now hitched its collective wagons to Akin.

“All Republican candidates across the country are now going to have to answer for their party’s support of Akin,” scolded Murray.

This creates the most-awkward of situations for Republicans. To many, a failure to follow through on the earlier excoriations of Akin is the equivalent of a tacit endorsement. Meantime, a repudiation of Akin – or even a failure to help fund their own candidate in a tight race – could enrage some conservatives who support his candidacy. That would carve deeper fissures within the party.

This is why some Republicans hold their noses as they grant Akin muted support.

The Senate majority is within reach for the Republicans. The GOP could win or lose the Senate by just a single seat.

So some Republicans hold their noses. Because either way, if it comes down to the Akin race, they know it’s going to stink.