Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin and his wife campaign in… (Jeff Roberson, Associated…)
KIRKWOOD, Mo. — — Republican Todd Akin's embattled campaign for Senate won support Wednesday from prominent conservatives, including some who had called on him to withdraw after he said victims of "legitimate rape" rarely became pregnant.
Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint backed Akin one day after the final deadline passed for him to get off the ballot. The Republican Senate campaign committee, whose chairman had asked Akin to abandon the race, now says it hopes he wins. And Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, a party leader in the Senate, dropped his opposition to Akin's candidacy, saying he will support his fellow Missourian.
With Republicans struggling in their bid to pick up the four seats they need to wrest control of the Senate, some have calculated they must back Akin. Missouri still represents perhaps the party's best chance to defeat an incumbent Democrat.
"If Republicans are to win back the Senate and stop President Obama's liberal agenda, we must defeat Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri," Santorum and DeMint said in a statement sent to donors and posted on Facebook. "Todd Akin is a principled conservative who is committed to winning and fighting for freedom in the U.S. Senate."
Support from these members of the fiscal and social conservative flanks of the party raises the question of whether other GOP leaders in Washington and Missouri will follow — and open the door for campaign money to flow to the race.
"As with every Republican Senate candidate, we hope Todd Akin wins in November, and we will continue to monitor this race closely in the days ahead," said Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Despite the controversy, Akin had retained support from two big-name conservatives: Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich.
Democrats have sought to use Akin's views to tarnish Republicans in other races. On Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the head of the Democratic Senate campaign committee, called GOP support for Akin "absolutely shameful."
"All Republican candidates across the country are now going to have to answer for their party's support of Akin," she said.
The controversy began in August when an interviewer asked Akin whether rape victims should be able to get an abortion. Akin said it was "rare" for a rape victim to become pregnant. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," he said. "But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child."
Akin has apologized, saying he used the "wrong words." He opposes abortion, even in the case of rape and incest.
The six-term congressman came under pressure to quit the race from the GOP's top tier: presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of Senate campaign efforts. Lesser known elected officials, activists and Republican candidates echoed the call, and major conservative groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS pulled out of Missouri and halted their ads against McCaskill.
Akin has used his party's opposition as a badge of honor, issuing fundraising appeals that portray him in a battle to defend his socially conservative principles against the establishment.
McCaskill has released two new ads, one slamming Akin for past comments on the issue. Her campaign also issued an appeal to donors minutes after Akin cleared the deadline to remain in the race. McCaskill has a deep war chest, but faces a difficult campaign in the Republican-leaning state.
Money remains a struggle for Akin. His campaign has pulled in $650,000 in online donations in the past month, officials said, but needs many times that to wage a serious effort.
DeMint's political action committee has been weighing whether to send money to Akin, as it has to other tea party candidates, but has not yet made any decisions.
The conservative senator's endorsement came after Akin insisted he opposed earmarks, a top issue for DeMint. Earmarks, now banned, are federal appropriations awarded by lawmakers outside the standard budget process.
Missouri Democrats called this a "complete pivot" from Akin's earlier position on earmarks and filed ethics complaints Wednesday, contending Akin switched in exchange for support — a potentially "prospective" violation of bribery and gift laws.
Blunt couched his change of heart on the necessity for Republicans to control the Senate.
"Akin and I don't agree on everything, but he and I agree the Senate majority must change," Blunt said in a statement. "I'll be working for the Republican ticket in Missouri, and that includes Todd Akin."
Last month, Blunt had joined the state's former Republican Sens. John Ashcroft, Kit Bond, John Danforth and Jim Talent in calling for Akin to step aside.
Gingrich, the former House speaker and presidential candidate, predicted most of Akin's past financial backers would return, saying they had a "moral obligation" to help the party defeat McCaskill and win the Senate.