ST. LOUIS — Todd Akin, a former six-term U.S. congressman from suburban St. Louis who lost a U.S. Senate race to Democrat Claire McCaskill in 2012, died late Sunday. He was 74.
Akin had battled cancer for several years and died at his home in Wildwood, surrounded by family, his son Perry said in a statement.
A divinity school graduate and the son of a minister father, Akin thrust himself into the national spotlight during his campaign to unseat McCaskill with a comment about “legitimate rape.”
The ensuing controversy sank his candidacy in a race many felt he had a chance to win in a state that was increasingly tilting Republican. Akin would later write that he regretted apologizing for the remark, arguing that his apology legitimized what he believed were willful distortions of the remarks by his political opponents and the media.
William Todd Akin was born in New York City to Nancy Perry and the Rev. Paul Bigelow Akin. The family moved when he was a young boy to St. Louis, where his ancestors had deep roots.
He graduated from John Burroughs School, then received a management engineering degree from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Later, he received a graduate degree in divinity at St. Louis’ Covenant Theological Seminary.
Akin worked for IBM and the Laclede Steel Company before entering politics. He also served in the Missouri National Guard from 1972-1980.
His great-grandfather, Thomas Russell Akin, founded Laclede, a manufacturer of carbon and alloy steel, in 1911.
Akin served in the Missouri House of Representatives for five terms, beginning in 1990. He was a staunch conservative, fiscally and socially, and became a leading opponent of abortion.
In 1995, his abortion-related amendment to a Missouri funding bill for nurses’ education doomed the bill. The “Akin amendment,” as it became known, would have prohibited abortion referrals by nurses aided by the bill. Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan blamed “anti-choice extremists” for the bill’s demise.
Akin had said the Carnahan-backed nurses bill would have made the state “a sales agent for the abortion industry.”
Akin also supported other conservative causes, ranging from the home-schooling movement to anti-tax crusades. His wife, Lulli Boe Akin, was active in the home-schooling movement, and all six of their children were schooled at home.
“Education is not something like Henry Ford’s assembly line, where you just make a machine, and it just sort of cranks out a good education,” Akin told the Post-Dispatch in 2012. “It’s a personal experience. It’s a community experience.”
While in Congress, Akin sometimes bucked his Republican Party on education issues. In one seminal moment, he voted against former President George W. Bush’s signature “No Child Left Behind” Education bill. Akin called it too intrusive and too abiding the power of the federal government over what he said should be local and personal decisions about education.
A long-time board member of Missouri Right to Life, Akin participated in anti-abortion protests in front of Missouri and Illinois abortion clinics in the 1980s. He was arrested multiple times for civil disobedience during those protests.
During the 2012 campaign, he spoke to fellow protesters who he said “had been in jail with me,” adding that “don’t tell anybody I’m a jailbird, you know, but there were a bunch of us that were involved in the pro-life movement.
“As I’ve made very clear I don’t apologize for being pro-life,” Akin said during that 2012 campaign. “I stand up for the things I believe in.”
Akin’s stand on abortion in Missouri, which has a strong anti-abortion movement, helped him survive a crowded Republican primary for the right to oppose McCaskill that year.
Akin won the support of 36% in defeating businessman John Brunner, who got 30%, and former Missouri State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who got 29%.
Ironically, McCaskill would later write in her book, “Plenty Ladylike,” that she secretly gave the conclusions from a poll to Akin associates in order to convince him to re-run an ad McCaskill thought would help Akin win the primary. McCaskill wrote that she viewed Akin as her weakest potential Republican opponent, and that her efforts were part of a “dog whistle” campaign to get conservatives to vote for Akin in the primary.
In August 2012, Akin made comments on KTVI (Channel 2), the Fox affiliate in St. Louis, that turned that Senate race on its head. Leading in some polls at the time, Akin argued that abortions wouldn’t be necessary for rape victims because, “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
McCaskill pounced, and many Republicans — including Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri — distanced themselves from Akin, with many calling on him to quit the race. Akin refused to quit, although he alternately tried to explain or apologize for the remarks. But on the campaign trail, McCaskill hammered Akin almost daily on the comments, and she won a second term in a landslide.
Columbia Journalism Review columnist Jennifer Vanasco wrote that Akin’s claim “was so false that it’s the equivalent of saying that a woman gets pregnant if she stands under a full moon — something people used to believe.”
But Akin became less apologetic about his comments later in life. He argued in his 2014 book “Firing Back: Taking on the Party Bosses and Media Elite to Protect Our Freedom” that he had been victimized by a media out to get him and an unforgiving and distorting political culture.
“My comment about a woman’s body shutting the pregnancy down was directed to the impact of stress of fertilization,” he wrote. “This is something fertility doctors debate and discuss. Doubt me? Google ‘stress and infertility,’ and you will find a library of research on the topic.
“The research is not conclusive, but there is considerable evidence that stress makes conception more difficult,” Akin continued. “And what could be more stressful than a rape?”
Akin depicted himself as a “target of media assassination” that made moot “what I said, or logic, or truth. I had mentioned ‘abortion and rape.’ That was enough. It was simply assassination.”
On Monday, however, tributes and appreciation came from both former foes and allies.
McCaskill on Monday offered condolences to Akin’s family. “He was a nice man, and although we had major disagreements about just about everything, he was authentic to his beliefs,” she said. “He actually believed in everything he said, which is a tribute to his character.”
U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said he was saddened to hear of Akin’s passing. “Todd was a dedicated husband, father, grandfather and public servant, serving the Show-Me State for decades at both the state and federal level. My prayers are with the Akin family as we mourn the loss of this son of Missouri.”
Perry Akin said in a statement, “As my father’s death approached, we had people from all different walks of life share story after story of the personal impact he had on them. He was a devout Christian, a great father, and a friend to many. We cherish many fond memories from him driving the tractor at our annual hayride, to his riveting delivery of the freedom story at Fourth of July parties dressed in the full uniform of a colonial minuteman. The family is thankful for his legacy: a man with a servant’s heart who stood for truth.”
Todd Akin is survived by his wife; his mother, Nancy Bigelow Akin; four sons; two daughters and 18 grandchildren.
Funeral information has not been announced.
(Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.)