No matter the outcome on Tuesday, the story of Missouri’s U.S. Senate race will be one of a comeback.

On one hand, you have Claire McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent and assumed earlier this year to be among the senators most vulnerable to challengers.

On the other hand, you have Todd Akin, the Republican congressman who gained an unlikely primary victory only to dash his momentum and become a GOP establishment outcast for his comments about rape.

Both candidates, who are joined in the race by Libertarian Jonathan Dine, have long records of public service. This cuts two ways, as resume-citing by the candidates and as opposition-research material for their counterparts.

Mr. Akin’s voting record in the U.S. House has been weaved by the McCaskill campaign into a narrative of a politician out of the Missouri mainstream, with extreme positions on programs like Medicare and school lunches for poor children.

Ms. McCaskill had her Senate tenure picked apart and presented by the Akin campaign as a rubberstamp for the Obama administration, having supported his high-dollar initiatives on health-care reform and economic stimulus.

For his part, Mr. Dine sees the Democrat and Republican as career politicians who have lost touch with Missouri and lack the capacity to restore the nation’s fiscal integrity and fundamental freedoms.

Looking back

History holds no sway in the balloting, but it bears noting that recent U.S. Senate races in Missouri have swung between blowout victories and nail-biting finishes. Republicans Roy Blunt and Kit Bond beat Democrats by double-digit percentage margins in 2010 and 2004 respectively.

The races in 2006 (when Ms. McCaskill got the Senate seat) and 2002 had closer outcomes, the winning candidates finishing within a 1 to 2 percentage point advantage.

Before the August primary, Mr. Akin, who represents a district in the St. Louis suburbs, had never appeared on a Buchanan County ballot. (He finished third behind fellow Republicans Sarah Steelman and John Brunner.)

Ms. McCaskill found success in the county in her 2006 Senate race and her successful 2002 and 1998 runs for state auditor. In 2004, she ran for governor and finished behind Republican Matt Blunt, both in Buchanan County and statewide.

A turning point

Histories after the race will point to Aug. 19 as the campaign’s most pivotal date. On that Sunday, Mr. Akin appeared on a St. Louis television station and fielded a question about abortions for victims of rape. The candidate said:

“If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

In a political climate where Republicans already had been accused of waging “a war on women,” the comment had a multi-megaton impact. Not only did Mr. Akin feel the scorn of Democrats across the nation, and late-night comedians who made him a punchline, fellow Republicans called for him to step aside in the race and withdrew money promised for his campaign.

The candidate apologized for the remarks and hung tough as the controversy swirled, resisting party leaders and turning their disdain into a rallying cry.

In one of his early outings after the comments, Mr. Akin told a crowd in Savannah, Mo., “I’m not the first choice of the party bosses. You might have noticed that.”

The outsider

But his turn as a semi-exile also allowed Mr. Akin to run as an outsider despite serving in Congress for 12 years. He hammered away at the big spending in Washington, including that initiated by the GOP, without fear of eventual intra-party repercussions.

He focused his message on limiting the size of federal government, reducing the amount of regulations that slow energy development and job growth and strengthening the nation’s military. Those go along with his other stands against the Affordable Care Act and for Second Amendment rights.

The Republican tied Ms. McCaskill at every turn to President Obama, who likely will lose Missouri’s 10 electoral votes, and accused her husband’s businesses of benefiting from the federally backed stimulus program.

“There is a reason for this record of failures,” Mr. Akin said in the second of two Senate debates. “That’s because Obama and McCaskill have a deep and abiding faith that big government is the solution to every problem.”

Fighting back

The Democratic candidate has given as good as she has gotten in the race, her campaign not only zeroing in on Mr. Akin’s verbal bloopers (he called the senator not “ladylike” and compared her to a dog) but providing daily examples of the Republican’s House votes that hurt Missouri constituents.

Ms. McCaskill, of St. Louis, cited her opponent’s backing of bills to privatize Social Security, to dial back access to federally backed student loans and to reduce grants to rural communities. In August, he said the National Student Lunch Program should not be within the federal purview.

In addition to trumpeting her work to bring accountability to war contractors (in the mode of the old Truman Commission) and efforts to enhance benefits for veterans, Ms. McCaskill has hailed a publication ranking her as 50th among the 100 senators on a liberal to conservative scale.

“We’re called the moderates in the Senate,” she said during a debate. “There are some Democrats and some Republicans, and that’s the hope for fixing (the fiscal) problem. The hope is not on the far ends. The hope is in the middle where we would pick a balanced approach.”

The alternative

Mr. Dine, of Riverside, Mo., said the major-party candidates have been reckless in spending taxpayer money and unresponsive to encroachments on personal liberties. He said the Libertarian Party offers a socially liberal and fiscally conservative alternative.

He advocates the abolishment of the Federal Reserve and the lessening of government interference on commerce. A personal trainer, he sides against federal involvement in health care but urges tax incentives for people who join health clubs. He supports a military large enough to defend the nation but balks at foreign entanglements and nation-building.

“For as long as I can remember … Republican and Democrat politicians have offered up solutions, but America’s problems have only gotten worse,” said Mr. Dine, who got 58,663 votes in the 2010 Senate race. “Higher and higher taxes, more intrusions in your business and personal lives. Enough is enough.”

Ken Newton can be reached


Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.

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