WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers desperate to retain control of the US Senate have seized upon the controversial views of a pro-life Republican as a much-needed lifeline in the run-up to November polls.
Congressman Todd Akin has been disowned by virtually the entire Republican leadership but remains in the race to represent Missouri in the Senate, posing a headache for a party struggling to attract women voters.
Akin's self-inflicted crisis is rippling across Capitol Hill, where Democrats sense a chance to preserve their tenuous hold on the Senate and perhaps even gain several seats in the House of Representatives.
"It's hard to see how this Akin crisis helps Republicans down ballot," crisis communications expert Dick Keil of Purple Strategies told AFP, citing the Republican deficit with women voters in the US presidential race.
Supporters of US President Barack Obama have hammered Akin over his odd claim, since retracted, that women rarely fall pregnant after what he termed "legitimate rape," and the row has spread to the legislative campaign
Democrats hold a six-seat advantage in the Senate and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made no secret of his goal of delivering White House hopeful Mitt Romney a Republican majority in the upper house come November.
But -- with Democrats eagerly exploiting Akin's remarks to feed existing concerns among women and centrist voters about the Republicans' commitment to women's rights -- that task has suddenly become much harder.
There are 50 fewer Democrats than Republicans in the 435-seat House, but a Democratic strategist told AFP that the party is confident it could get close to or even surpass the 25-seat gain needed to erase that advantage.
"We're definitely going to gain seats and reverse the Tea Party wave, and we could get to 25," he said, referring to the gains by the right in the last vote thanks to an energetic movement of populist small government conservatives.
The Republican fallout begins in Akin's own race in Missouri, where the beleaguered lawmaker had hoped to move up from House to Senate.
He had led against Democrat Claire McCaskill, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the Senate, but on Thursday a new Rasmussen telephone poll found McCaskill leaping to a 10-point lead, 48 percent to 38 percent.
In crucial swing states like Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, Akin is being dragged into the races, with Democratic and Republican contenders alike repudiating his remarks.
Republicans are counting on Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts to hold onto his seat against Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, who seized on Akin's gaffe.
"Just imagine if Republicans win the White House, or gain control of the US Senate," a female narrator said in a Warren radio ad Wednesday. "It's not just one extreme candidate in Missouri, it's part of a Republican pattern."
Brown and Warren are in a dead heat, and the senator was one of the first Republican lawmakers to demand Akin step aside.
The scenario has played out across the country in House races as well. In Colorado, Democratic candidate Joe Miklosi linked his opponent, Representative Mike Coffman, to Akin within hours of the comments on Sunday.
"Mike Coffman and Todd Akin have been fighting side by side against women in Congress," Miklosi posted in a Twitter message linked to video of Akin praising Coffman on the House floor. Coffman quickly called on Akin to leave the race.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi swiftly highlighted Romney running mate congressman Paul Ryan's co-sponsorship of a bill that had language limiting federally funded abortions to cases of "forcible rape."
In Illinois, Democratic challenger Cheri Bustos called on Republican incumbent Bobby Schilling to return a $2,000 donation from Akin.
Schilling did, stressing: "I could never stand with someone who said something so contrary to our basic human values."
But Bustos hammered away at what her campaign called Schilling's "extreme record on women's issues," and urged him to explain his co-sponsorship of the same "forcible rape" bill that Ryan and Akin signed.
"The problem for House Republicans isn't what one of their members said, it's what many Republicans believe and do -- sign onto a bill to redefine rape and limit health care access for women who are victims of rape," said Jesse Ferguson of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"No matter hard they try to distance themselves from congressman Akin, voters will hold Republicans accountable for the rest of this campaign."