The Missouri representative running for Senate may have just tanked his own campaign more resoundingly than Senator George Allen did in his 2006.
Six years ago, the incumbent Senator, former Governor and prospective presidential candidate referred to a volunteer for his rival as "Macaca" and told him to go back where he came from. The word, unfamiliar to most of us, turned out to be a slur familiar in white supremacist circles. The non-white opposition researched turned out to be a Virginia native. The video of this episode turned out to be a YouTube sensation. And Senator Allen turned into former Senator Allen.
It was a lesson in how one mistimed, out-of-tune line can stand out in a long campaign in the middle of a longer career; a reminder that social media and the 24/7 news cycle can speed up the impact of a blunder; and a warning that there is no sure thing in campaigns.
The weekend comment by Representative Akin resembles the Allen affair in many ways. His observation that victims of "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant triggered a media uproar. On first glance, the reference to "legitimate rape" -- and thus the suggestion that much alleged rape is probably overstated, despite the wealth of research that demonstrates rape is a significantly underreported crime - seemed callous and ignorant. Much of the conservative wing of the Republican Party may oppose abortion in almost every case - and for some, rape would be no exemption -- but few would vocalize their views with such dismissive and sexist language.
The story ricocheted through traditional and new media at an astounding pace. Senator Claire McCaskill - the most endangered Democratic incumbent - was tossed a lifeline. Sensing disaster, national Republican organizations warned Akin that if he kept running, they would pull all funding from his race.
It wasn't just that a terrible misstatement may have changed the race's dynamics that make this case similar to Allen. It's the nature of the statement as well, and what it says about the speaker. In Akin's case, he was voicing a view on how a woman's body works -- that her reproductive system would shut down in case of rape -- that most of us had never heard. But it is a popular teaching in the hard-core anti-choice community.
Much like the revelation that "Macaca" wasn't a made up word, but common linguistic currency among a fringe and extreme movement, Akin's view on rape and abortion revealed to the public just how fringe and extreme his own background is. It would almost be more palatable if it were his own insane misunderstanding of biology. The fact that he comes out of a community that believes the same is even more off-putting -- just as Allen's slur highlighted his connection with the detestable remnants of long-standing supremacist organizations.
Voters had felt that Allen may have been a little tone-deaf on race; this was evidence that he was completely backward. Similarly, if you were concerned that Akin might be a little extreme, this is evidence that he's far out of the mainstream of Missouri residents.
If bad one-liners sank careers, Joe Biden, Mitt Romney and both George Bushes would have fallen short of presidential politics. But in a tiring campaign, we forgive misstatements. In view of a full career, you can put one comment in context.
With Akin and Allen, it's not just what either man said -- but what these moments say about where they come from, who they listen to, and who they are. While these were surprising soundbites, the bigger story is that neither truly surprised us about the man behind the quote.
Anything can still happen. The backlash against Akin has been far faster and more total than the response to Allen who was narrowly edged out on election day. But if Akin stays and fights, McCaskill has more than two months to accidentally let one instant change anything. And maybe no damage lasts forever. After all, where is George Allen now? Running a close race for Senate in Virginia.