Akin shocks rivals with Senate primary win, Wagner and Clay cruise to congressional victories
U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, long a favorite with Missouri’s politically powerful religious conservatives and home-schoolers, on Tuesday duplicated his first congressional victory as he edged out two rivals to win the state’s hotly contested GOP primary for the U.S. Senate.
Much as he did 12 years ago, Akin defied the pre-election polls. This time, he defeated St. Louis businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman in one of the state’s most competitive U.S. Senate primaries in decades.
In 2000, he performed a similar feat, outpacing two other Republican rivals who each had been favored to win.
Akin captured 36 percent of Tuesday’s GOP vote, compared to 30 percent for Brunner and 29 percent for Steelman. Akin now will challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who was officially kicking off her re-election bid Wednesday morning in Kansas City.
“First, I want to give thanks to God our Creator who has blessed this campaign, heard your prayers, and answered them with victory,” Akin said in his acceptance speech Tuesday night, before cheering supporters gathered in St. Charles. “Through the months, we have seen frequent instances of His blessing and are reminded that with Him all things are possible!”
"I also wanted to thank Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was with us from the start, stayed by our side, lifted us up in prayer, and tonight celebrates with us in victory.”
Akin’s victory particularly took Brunner by surprise. Brunner had spent at least $8 million of his own money and had led in all the pre-election polls. Tuesday night, Brunner opted against a public concession speech, instead offering his congratulations in a private phone call to Akin.
Meanwhile, in the region’s hottest Democratic congressional contest, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay handily defeated fellow congressman Russ Carnahan in the redrawn 1st District, where both had been tossed during redistricting. Because the 1st is predominantly Democratic, Clay will be the strong favorite in November against Republican Robyn Hamlin, who has unsuccessfully challenged Clay before.
In the region’s new 2nd congressional district, Republican Ann Wagner handily defeated all primary challengers, including former Webster Groves councilman Randy Jotte. In the Democratic primary, the race between Harold Whitfield and Glenn Koenen was still too close to call.
(Update) By early Wednesday afternoon, Koenen had been declared the winner by a 49-vote margin. He recently retired after 17 years as executive director of Circle Of Concern, a food pantry in Valley Park. (End of update)
The new 2nd, like the current one, leans Republican. In her victory speech, Wagner called herself "a fighter for families, values and job creators."
She repeated her campaign theme that the nation has "a government that's spending too much and borrowing too much."
"I'll be in Washington, D.C., but I'm not of Washington D.C.," Wagner said. "I may be in Washington, but I'm of Ballwin."
Akin attracts national attention
But Tuesday’s big political story -- nationally, and in Missouri -- was Akin.
Akin’s success this time, as in 2000, was helped by his rivals’ chief focus on each other. While Brunner and Steelman bashed each other on TV for weeks, Akin chose to run only positive spots, saying Friday night at his last St. Louis rally that he was committed to following the philosophy of former President Ronald Reagan, who preached against bashing fellow Republicans.
On Tuesday, Steelman -- who had been endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- conceded around 10 p.m. to Akin.
Shortly before 10:30 p.m., U.S. Sen. John Cornyn – chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee – issued a congratulatory statement. “This was a hard fought contest but now we look forward to helping elect Todd as the next U.S. senator from Missouri,” Cornyn said.
Only then did Brunner’s aides tell reporters that he had conceded his loss. About a half-hour earlier, Brunner had sought to offer assurances to his supporters gathered at his election night party in Clayton.
"This has been an incredible journey here. The journey is not quite at the end," he said in brief remarks. "I've had this incredible privilege to travel all over the state of Missouri, and it's been amazing."
By that point, some of the TV crews camped out at Brunner’s election night party in Clayton had left to head out to Akin’s celebratory event at the Columns in St. Charles.
Akin’s victory was eerily similar to his first congressional win in 2000, when he nudged out former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary, who had spent most of the campaign sparring with another Republican, then-state Sen. Franc Flotron. McNary and Flotron had been deemed the frontrunners throughout most of that crowded GOP contest.
This time, Brunner’s allies – gathered in a ballroom in posh Clayton – remained optimistic through most of the vote-counting, apparently unable to grasp that their man was going to lose.
Said supporter Ernie Dempsey midway through the tallying: "Todd just doesn't really have the name recognition outside of the area. Brunner didn't either, but he spent a lot of money to get it.”
In fact, Akin was strong outstate – especially in Republican stronghold Greene County, where he won about 40 percent of the vote.
Akin acknowledged that he was helped by his TV ads featuring Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, who carried that region in his failed 2008 bid for president. Huckabee told viewers to ignore any attacks against Akin and that he was the true conservative.
Akin also may have gotten a boost from McCaskill, who ran a barrage of TV ads statewide that criticized Akin in pro-Republican terms, calling him “pro-life’’ and “pro-family.”
McCaskill denied that her intent was to help Akin, but the fact that her attack ads were harsher against Steelman and Brunner raised suspicions among political insiders nationally and in Missouri.
Still, Tuesday’s statewide primary vote might pose some concern for Democrats in Missouri and nationally. In the Senate race, for example, Republicans cast almost two-thirds of the overall vote.
Akin also recalls 2000
The chilly banquet room in St. Charles grew warmer after 10 p.m., as supporters of Akin crowded around the empty podium, confident of his victory. “We want Todd,” they chanted. “We want Todd.”
When he appeared, Akin told the crowd that McCaskill was for big government, big spending and less freedom, and he stood for less government, less spending and more freedom. “The choice is clear,” he said.
It was for Bob and Sue Luedde of Franklin County. They felt Akin ran a positive campaign and was rewarded for it. The Lueddes said they believe in Akin’s message, and believe that, come November, he’ll be ready for McCaskill.
“Particularly if she runs any more ads like that,” Bob Luedde said. Added his wife: “We thank her for that ad.”
As for Akin, he emphasized that he never forgets that first congressional contest in 2000.
There was one difference between Tuesday and August 2000, he said.
This time, he explained, his victory was larger. “It’s not 56 votes,” he recalled. “So that’s an improvement.”
Clay thanks voters, wishes Carnahan well
At the Gateway Classic Sports Foundation, just west of downtown, Clay was jubilant as he flashed a victory sign and strode into his election night party.
He thanked voters from the city and St. Louis County who helped him win his primary race against Carnahan. Clay’s victory percentage was larger in the part of the 1st District in St. Louis County, than in the city.
Clay also said he had been “very disappointed” by what he described as the negative tone of the Carnahan campaign. He said he was “so glad it backfired,” and then added that “I wish Mr. Carnahan well.”
Clay said his primary victory was “about us coming together and showing how we can work together in this region. Let me thank this community for realizing it’s about leadership.”
Clay thanked his father, former U.S. Rep. Bill Clay, and his mother, Carol Clay, who joined the congressman on stage. The elder Clay praised his son for running a strong campaign. The only other person to speak was Mayor Francis Slay, who had endorsed Clay and had appeared in a TV ad that ran during the final days of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Carnahan had strode into the Dubliner Irish Pub downtown shortly before 10 p.m., where an intimate gathering of supporters awaited. He had been traveling around the district all day to greet voters.
Carnahan conceded defeat at 10:19 p.m., with wife Debra Carnahan, family, friends and supporters at his side. He is now among 10 members of the U.S. House who lost in this year’s primaries, according to Roll Call, a Washington publication that covers Congress.
"I could not have done it without family that's standing with me supporting me and also the many sacrifices they've had to take that's allowed me to do this," Carnahan said.
He added that he respected the voters’ decision, even though it means he will no longer be in Congress after his term ends in January.
"At the end of the day, the people get to decide. And the people have decided ... and I respect that decision. That's the way our democracy works and I have been blessed to be a part of that," Carnahan said. "We made this campaign about showing up, about showing up, fighting for the people of Missouri. We made it about standing up for what we believe in ... In this new 1st District, it belongs to the people."
Clay's victory speech from St. Louis Public Radio
Carnahan's concession speech from St. Louis Public Radio
Beacon reporters Kristen Hare and Robert Joiner and Beacon interns Nick Fandos, Lauren Leone and Neel Thakkar contributed to this story.