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Could a Missouri tea party win set up major battle for Senate?

Patrik JonssonThe Christian Science Monitor

Apparently itching for a clear showdown in the battle for the US Senate, Missouri Republicans on Tuesday picked veteran Congressman Todd Akin, a social and fiscal conservative, to take on Sen. Claire McCaskill, a conservative Democrat who voted for President Obama’s signature health-care legislation as well as a controversial stimulus package.

Tuesday’s primary election between three small-government conservatives – millionaire businessman John Brunner, former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, and Mr. Akin – had national implications because Missouri is widely seen as a linchpin in the Republican bid to gain control of the Senate, where Democrats now have a four-seat majority.

With his strong antitax stance and opposition to abortion and stem-cell research, Akin won over evangelical voters after lagging behind the other candidates in the polls – a move he credited in part to the endorsement of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), a staunch evangelical, who is currently a Fox News personality.

But Akin’s win also fits into Senator McCaskill’s playbook, guaranteeing a hard-fought and likely tight race going into November’s election. In ads aired before the primary, McCaskill had targeted Akin, whom pollsters saw as the weakest in the Republican field, as the “true conservative” in the race in an attempt to boost his popularity among primary voters.

In contrast to tea party favorite Ted Cruz’s victory in the Texas primaries last week, Missouri voters had the choice between three candidates who appealed to different splinters of a transforming Republican Party. Mr. Brunner, who spent $7.5 million of his own money on the election, represented the party’s Chamber of Commerce contingent; Ms. Steelman, endorsed by former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, had appealed primarily to small-government tea party voters; and Akin, with Mr. Huckabee’s support, gained traction among Missouri’s large share of evangelical conservatives.

Often outspoken, Akin made news last year after he suggested that “the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God” – a statement that he later clarified to be directed not against individuals but at “liberalism” as a movement.

Akin emerges from Tuesday’s primary as the presumptive front-runner. McCaskill has struggled to explain her votes for the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which earned her the nickname “ObamaClaire” from critics, as well as the 2009 stimulus act. Outside “super PACs” have already spent $15 million in the state to drive home the message that McCaskill is basically Mr. Obama’s lackey – a message she has fought back against, in part, by refusing to attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

In McCaskill’s favor, Akin is the candidate she can most easily paint as a fiscal and social radical, a message that could resonate among the state’s independent voters. She can also attack Akin’s prodigious use of so-called earmarks, or member projects, to channel federal funds to his district, a tactic decried by many conservative Republicans.

“Claire McCaskill will have a real uphill battle in Missouri, given that Obama is at the top of the ticket. But I think national Democrats will adopt a very different strategy toward Missouri depending on [which Republican] wins,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said before the final tallies were in on Tuesday.

Akin’s victory, he predicted, would probably lead national Democrats to conclude that Missouri is still very much in play, meaning they’ll spend more money and resources on ads and grass-roots activities in support of McCaskill.

Given that the power balance in Congress could ride on which way Missouri voters swing, the campaign is likely to be epic.

“The choice is clear in November,” Akin told supporters after his Tuesday night win. “The big-spending, budget-busting, job-killing liberal or the less-spending, balanced-budget, job-creating conservative?”