GOP Rep. Akin to challenge Sen. McCaskill in Mo.

By DAVID A. LIEB

Associated Press

CREVE COEUR, Mo. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Todd Akin entered Missouri’s Republican U.S. Senate primary Tuesday, casting himself as a “consistent conservative” who is “the literal, exact opposite” of the Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill.

As justification for his Senate campaign, Akin highlighted his long opposition to some of the most ambitious government programs of the past decade, including the No Child Left Behind education law, an expansion of prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients and a bank bailout law enacted under former Republican President George W. Bush. Akin also cited his votes against the economic stimulus act and new federal health care law enacted under Democratic President Barack Obama.

“I have been at least a consistent conservative, and have done that for a number of years,“ Akin said while announcing his candidacy in front of several dozen people at a hotel in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur. ”People might say, ’Well Akin, you’re too conservative.’ But in today’s economic conditions, it may seem that what some thought was too conservative is probably just about the medicine that we need.“

Akin, 63, is a married father of six who formerly was a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer. He has worked in corporate management, served in the Missouri House and has represented a suburban St. Louis congressional district for the past 10 years. He joins former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman as the only Republicans officially in next year’s Senate race. St. Louis businessman John Brunner, a past political and financial supporter of Akin’s, also is considering a Senate campaign.

Missouri’s U.S. Senate seat is one of the top targets for Republicans hoping to regain a Senate majority in the 2012 elections. That’s partly because Missouri is a traditional swing state, but also because Republicans view McCaskill — who is seeking re-election to a second term — as politically vulnerable. Earlier this year, she reimbursed the federal treasury $88,000 for taxpayer funded travel on an airplane in which she and her husband have an ownership stake. She later paid St. Louis County about $320,000 in back property taxes, interest and penalties related to the plane.

Republicans also hope to capitalize on McCaskill’s close ties to Obama, who narrowly lost Missouri four years ago. McCaskill was an early supporter of Obama during his presidential campaign and has remained an ally in the Senate, backing some of his most high-profile initiatives, such as the 2009 stimulus act and the 2010 health care law.

But McCaskill also has several strengths against her Republican rivals. She has cultivated an independent streak from some Democrats on certain issues, including in her staunch opposition to spending earmarks. She has deep-rooted name recognition from statewide campaigns for Senate, governor and state auditor during the past two decades. She has demonstrated an ability to appeal both to urban and rural voters. And McCaskill had more than $1.9 million in her campaign account as of the end of March — more than double the $910,000 Akin had and far outpacing the roughly $194,000 reported by Steelman.

A McCaskill spokesman had no immediate comment about Akin’s candidacy, instead referring a question to the Missouri Democratic Party, which highlighted Akin’s votes against measures that would have ended tax breaks for oil companies. The party said he has an “extreme record of fighting for special interests.”

Akin is making his first statewide campaign. Steelman has twice run statewide — winning election as treasurer in 2004 but losing a gubernatorial primary in 2008. Brunner has never run for office.

In a primary, Akin and Steelman both will have strong geographical bases — Akin’s in the Republican-rich St. Louis suburbs and Steelman’s in Republican-leaning southwest Missouri.

“Both Steelman and Akin can appeal to the most conservative elements of the Republican Party by their stand on standard political issues — abortion, guns, education funding, the health care bill,” said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University. “I think it could potentially turn on style.”

Steelman said in a written statement that she looks forward “to a vigorous debate” with Akin and hinted she may try to emphasize Akin’s 10 years in Congress.

“I’m running to change the status quo in Washington,” Steelman said. “The Washington establishment has been looking for a candidate that will protect their interests instead of those of the people.”

Asked how he would differentiate himself from Steelman, Akin instead focused on McCaskill.

“I’m going to be offering the people of Missouri a literal exact opposite record than Claire McCaskill,“ Akin said.

John Brunner, the chairman of health care products company Vi-Jon Inc., has contributed thousands of dollars to Akin’s campaigns over the past decade and said he considers the congressman a friend. Yet Brunner said Tuesday that after a month of exploring the Senate race, “I’m even more encouraged, more excited and more motivated than ever before.”

“At a time of crisis in America, Washington is experiencing a profound lack of leadership,” Brunner said. “Yet the same professional politicians of both parties are announcing that another term in office is all we need.”

Akin called Brunner “a fantastic guy,” adding: “I’m very thankful for his support in the past — I think he’s supported the right guy.”

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