Democrats Try to Link Todd Akin to Paul Ryan

While most GOP pols shun Akin's comments, the damage with voters may be unavoidable.

By + More

Democrats are hoping to turn the GOP's Todd Akin problem into a Paul Ryan problem and that could ultimately hurt the Republican ticket's chances of capturing the White House this fall.

The political toxicity of Akin's remarks, which referred to "legitimate rape" and the female body's ability to prevent pregnancy under such circumstances, was apparent as top Republicans quickly shunned him. Establishment GOP members have even called on him to quit his campaign to unseat Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill. Akin has apologized but vows to stay in the race.

But Democrats have been quick to link GOP vice presidential pick Paul Ryan to Akin because the two sponsored a House bill together that would assign "personhood" to embryos from the moment of fertilization, granting them legal and constitutional rights. The impacts of such a law are widely unknown and voters in conservative Mississippi voted down a similar proposal. Ryan also personally opposes legal abortion in cases of rape, but the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan ticket, while pro-life, supports such exceptions.

[See pictures of Romney Vice Presidential pick Paul Ryan.]

Though Democrats traditionally hold an edge with women voters, and President Barack Obama leads Romney by 15 points among the group in a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Republicans who can eat into the margin stand a much greater chance of winning election. Not to mention the fact that there are slightly more women voters than men.

Setting aside the idea that there are 'legitimate rapes' and, conversely, illegitimate ones, opposing abortions even in cases of rape is a minority opinion even in the GOP, says Jennifer Lawless, director of American University's Women and Politics Institute.

"We know there's a big gender cap heading into the election and when you're talking about not supporting abortion in the case of rape and incest you are already outside the mainstream in the Republican Party," she says.

According to a Gallup survey in May 2012, just 20 percent of Americans oppose allowing abortions under all circumstances. Since 1975, when Gallup first started polling the question, support has never risen above 23 percent.

Lawless says that an ever-more polarized political system – where incumbents are more vulnerable in their primaries than in general elections – is forcing candidates to take more extreme positions on flashpoint issues like abortion, rather than holding positions reflected by society at large.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

"There are hardly any pro-choice Republicans who are left in Congress and when that's the case the debate and deliberation moves further to the margins and the discussion is now not about supporting a woman's right to choose generally, it's about whether there are any circumstances where reproductive freedom should be protected," she says.

A broader debate about abortion could favor Republicans – the Gallup survey showed a record low in Americans who identified themselves as pro-choice at 41 percent, compared with 50 percent who said they were pro-life.

But the biggest political loser from the renewed abortion debate is likely Romney, Lawless says. Romney supported the pro-choice position when running for Senate and serving as Massachusetts governor while personally opposing it, but now supports the pro-life position. It's a transition that's made conservatives wary of Romney. He successfully avoided addressing the issue for the most part during the Republican primary.

Romney said in a televised interview on Monday of Akin, "I can't defend what he said, I can't defend him."

Furthering heartburn for Romney may be the fact that the GOP, currently putting together it's party platform ahead of next week's party convention, is expected to include support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion without exceptions.

[Read: Race roils presidential campaign.]

"[Romney's] said obviously he disagrees with those statements and he thinks that they are out of touch, but he is now wading back into an issue where he does not have that much credibility among the Republicans and the Democrats don't trust him," Lawless says. "It's a bad day for Romney because it's not the message he wants. Any day when he is not talking about the economy and not talking about unemployment is a day that Barack Obama wins."