JEFFERSON CITY — Once considered among the most vulnerable incumbents in Congress, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill rebounded Tuesday to win re-election over Republican Todd Akin, whose campaign never recovered from his much-criticized remark about "legitimate rape."
McCaskill, who acknowledged she was an underdog as the 2012 campaign began, capitalized on Akin's comments about pregnancy and rape to portray him as a right-wing extremist.
Her victory preserved an important Senate seat for Democrats — an outcome that had once seemed unlikely because of McCaskill's close ties to President Barack Obama, who narrowly lost Missouri in 2008 and was trailing Republican challenger Mitt Romney there Tuesday. McCaskill is the first Democratic senator to win re-election in Missouri since Thomas Eagleton in 1980.
"With a stubborn determination, tenacity and a refusal to give up, we showed the country what Missouri is made of," McCaskill told cheering supporters at her election night party in St. Louis.
Akin, a six-term congressman from suburban St. Louis, said he called McCaskill to congratulate her.
"Things don't always turn out the way you think they're going to," Akin told his supporters. "But I also think that in the circumstances we've all been through, that it's particularly appropriate to thank God, who makes no mistakes and who is much wiser than we are. So I say, 'To God alone be the honor and the glory, regardless of how he decides to organize history.'"
Akin had been favored over McCaskill after prevailing in an Aug. 7 Republican primary. But everything changed when he was asked in an Aug. 19 interview whether abortion should be legal for women who have been raped.
He responded: "From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
Although Akin apologized, his comments went viral on the Internet. He was widely denounced and ridiculed, and Romney joined other top national Republicans in urging Akin to quit the race.
Instead, he forged ahead despite losing millions of dollars of planned advertising support from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the deep-pocketed Crossroads group affiliated with GOP strategist Karl Rove. Akin solicited small online donations and began portraying his campaign as an anti-establishment crusade.
Some of the party's top leaders remained bitter that Akin did not abandon the race, which would have let Missouri Republicans pick a replacement.
"I just want to say a quick thank you to (at) ToddAkin for helping us lose the senate," Jason Whitman, the national Republican policy chairman, tweeted Tuesday night.
An exit poll conducted for The Associated Press showed that Akin's "legitimate rape" remark was taken into consideration by many Missouri voters, and women were slightly more likely to say it was important to their decision.
Republican Dorothy Gilpin voted for Romney for president but switched parties to vote for McCaskill.
"I thought she was better than that Todd Akin. I didn't like his comment about getting raped," said Gilpin, a retiree from Jefferson City.
Akin's supporters were more likely to forgive his remark.
"He made one mistake. He apologized a dozen times. Every politician misspeaks," said John Shields, of St. Louis County, who is chairman of Schaeffer Manufacturing.
Akin eventually regained support from some Republicans — including former presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee — and got financial backing from several conservative interest groups, including a $1 million ad buy from the Now or Never Political Action Committee.
But McCaskill generally enjoyed a financial advantage throughout the campaign. She also highlighted Akin's opposition to the federal government's role in issuing student loans and setting a minimum wage.
Even before the Aug. 7 Republican primary, McCaskill seemed to prefer to run against Akin. She took the unusual step of running TV advertisements against her three potential Republican opponents. The ad about Akin highlighted positions appealing to Republican primary voters. It called Akin a "crusader against bigger government" who promotes a "pro-family agenda," and it ended with the claim that Akin "is just too conservative."
McCaskill, 59, has a lengthy political resume that includes serving as state auditor, a state lawmaker and a county prosecutor in the Kansas City area. She now lives in suburban St. Louis.
Akin, 65, is a former Army officer, engineer and state lawmaker. He first won election to the U.S. House in 2000.