What do Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s controversial comments about rape mean for Wisconsin Republicans?
While the statements issued by Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and many leading Republicans urging Akin to quit his race were likely made in an effort to salvage the party’s chance of capturing the Missouri Senate seat (and therefore possibly taking control of the U.S. Senate), they also likely reflected the GOP’s desire to turn attention away from the abortion issue as much as possible.
Many Wisconsin Republicans, including Paul Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker, take stands on abortion that endear them to the religious right but are at odds with mainstream opinion on the issue. Both men, for instance, oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest, a position that polls show only about a fifth of the American electorate embraces.
Akin is under extreme fire for asserting that "legitimate rape" rarely causes pregnancy. His comments fit perfectly into the “War on Women” narrative Democrats both nationally and in Wisconsin have constructed in recent months, largely in response to Republican attempts to cut federal funds from Planned Parenthood and their opposition to requiring insurance plans to include contraception coverage.
Most poignantly, the Akin controversy reignites the debate over the Republicans’ aborted attempt earlier this year to amend current law in a way that might have resulted in some rape victims being denied access to abortion coverage through Medicaid.
The proposed bill, which was co-sponsored by Ryan, would have barred the use of federal funds (through Medicaid and similar programs) for abortions except for cases of “forcible rape,” which many critics alleged would redefine “rape,” therefore changing the long-standing federal policy of granting all victims of rape and incest the ability to obtain abortions through Medicaid.
“Todd Akin and Paul Ryan: On the same side of redefining rape,” claimed a headline on Blogging Blue, a popular liberal blog in Wisconsin.
Last week, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin posted to its website a column written by Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student and contraception insurance coverage advocate whom Rush Limbaugh famously called a “slut,” detailing Ryan’s extreme anti-abortion record.
Much of what Fluke pointed out presents an awkward situation for Romney, who has made clear he would not oppose abortion in instances of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is endangered.
Indeed, his views are at odds with the Republican platform committee, which on Tuesday approved an abortion plank Monday that leaves little room for rape or incest exceptions.
In recent history, the party platform has not meant much for presidential candidates. However, in light of all of the attention recently put on abortion, Romney may be pressured to publicly rebuke his party's official position on the issue, putting him at risk of further alienating a conservative base already suspicious of his pro-choice record as governor of Massachusetts.
To add to the GOP’s headaches in Wisconsin, where polls show the president dominating the female vote, two Republican candidates in state legislative races could make the party appear insensitive to the issue of violence against women.
One of them, David VanderLeest, is running a hopeless campaign for Assembly in a solidly Democratic district in Green Bay. VanderLeest gained notoriety last year when his long record of domestic disputes and financial troubles became public in his unsuccessful bid to oust state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, in a recall election.
Although VanderLeest has been arrested at least twice on charges of battery against his ex-wife, the charges were eventually dismissed in both instances, although VanderLeest pled no contest to disorderly conduct in one of them.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin clearly wants nothing to do with Vanderleest; the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee (RACC) does not list him as one of its candidates.
Jennifer Toftness, the executive director of RACC, did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
However, in a race that favors Democrats but is winnable for Republicans, the GOP challenger to state Sen. Jen Shilling, D-La Crosse, also has a police record as a result of an alleged altercation with a former partner.
Bill Feehan, a La Crosse businessman and member of the County Board there, was arrested in 2000 after allegedly choking his girlfriend at the time. Similar to VanderLeest, Feehan pled guilty to disorderly conduct in exchange for prosecutors dropping a battery charge.
"This absolutely goes to show his lack of character and respect for women," says Brad Wojciechowski, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
The GOP appears to fully support Feehan, and the candidate himself described comments about his criminal record as a “low blow by the Democrat Party” in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“It’s a private matter that’s over a decade ago and I think both parties have moved on,” said Dan Romportl, executive director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, in explaining the party's support for Feehan.