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Todd Akin used to be an electoral underdog.
The Town and Country resident was for all intents and purposes on the back burner in a 2000 congressional race to replace then-U.S. Congressman Jim Talent. He squared off in a GOP primary that included two political figures - Gene McNary and Francis Flotron - with more high-profile and expansive offices.
But Akin defied the political odds and vanquished the GOP field by a handful of votes.
Battling against his own party that year was arguably Akin's most notable electoral challenge of his long career in public service. He's won re-election to the U.S. House without any trouble over the last six election cycles. But earlier in May, Akin sought to supersede that race's difficulty when he declared his intention to run for U.S. Senate next year.
Akin's future electoral path could be perilous. He'll also have to fend off a Republican primary field that includes former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. But there are factors that could play to Akin's favor.
For one thing, Akin will likely have the Republican establishment on his side. While that may seem like a curse in today's political environment, Missouri Republicans have tended to gravitate toward consensus candidates in major primaries. In 2008, they chose U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof - who was endorsed by all of the state's congressmen and then-U.S. Sen. Kit Bond - over Steelman. They coalesced last year around Roy Blunt's U.S. Senate bid, even though state Sen. Chuck Purgason mounted a challenge. If history repeats itself and notable endorsers swarm to Akin's cause, he could be the beneficiary of a fundraising and organizational edge.
That doesn't mean Akin will get out of the primary unscathed. Just a day after his announcement, Steelman criticized Akin for voting on a budget deal that kept the government from shutting down. It was an example of Steelman questioning Akin's conservative credentials - a strategy she used against Hulshof in 2008. But that may amount to ideological hair-splitting. After all, Akin's voting record - which includes votes against No Child Left Behind, the TARP bailout, the federal stimulus plan and the federal health care plan - is arguably more conservative than Blunt's. And it's worth noting that Steelman had no problem serving as a high-profile endorser and surrogate for Blunt's successful Senate campaign.
Still, even if Akin gets through the primary, he will then have to unseat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who has proven to be a tenacious competitor throughout her political career. There's little doubt she would benefit if the Republican candidates have a nasty - and expensive - primary.
One thing to look for is whether President Barack Obama makes a serious push to win the Show Me State, a move that could bring a swarm of Democratic voters to the polls to assist candidates such as McCaskill. If the national Democrats decide to skip over Missouri - which as of now seems like a strong possibility - McCaskill may not have the extra organizational boost she needs to succeed in a tight contest.
There's a lot of time left before November 2012, but McCaskill's re-election bid will be close regardless of the identity of the GOP nominee. If he plays his cards right, Akin could find himself in an unfamiliar position - the frontrunner for a position in the world's most deliberative body.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Jason Rosenbaum is a freelance journalist. He covered state politics in Jefferson City for Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Beacon, the Columbia Business Times and the Columbia Tribune. He also is a regular commentator for KBIA, an NPR affiliate based in Columbia.